My Interview with Nate Cooper on the “Cut Your Learning Curve” Podcast
Some topic highlights for me:
- Why it is critical to have a clear learning goal in mind
- How I built my keystone habits for ensuring a productive day
- How to extract peak performance lessons from other fields
- The implications of seeing our future self as a customer
- How to maximize potential value from a mentor
Audio recording below (30m). Full transcript to follow.
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Note: Transcript slightly edited for clarity.
Nate Cooper: Today, we’re talking to Chris Sparks. Chris is a productivity coach and business coach, and what I really like about this conversation is how Chris frames habit forming. He talks about how we can think of ourselves like our own boss or a factory. He also helps us think through how the future version of ourselves is almost like a different person. We can set ourselves up for success in the morning by taking care of things in the evening. I hope you learn a lot from this conversation. I know I certainly did and happy learning. Checkout natecooper.co/free. Here is my conversation with Chris Sparks.
Welcome to the Cut Your Learning Curve podcast, Chris Sparks. I’m going to be talking with you a little bit about what you do, but why don’t we start with an introduction. Tell the folks what you do and why are you on the podcast.
Chris Sparks: Awesome. Thanks for having me, Nate. So I’m a productivity coach. I work with entrepreneurs who are trying to reach scale, having conversations to determine what their top priorities are at any given time and helping them establish the habits and systems so that they can reach the next level, both in their business and their personal lives.
Nate Cooper: Awesome. Any place people can find you online?
Chris Sparks: I’m putting out free chapters of my book Inflection Point on my website The Forcing Function and anyone interested in coaching can find more information there as well.
Nate Cooper: Awesome. Well, thanks for being here. As you know, my podcast is about learning and personal development. I am grateful to have you here because a lot of the people we’ve been doing interviews with have been talking about what to do when you get stuck. Careers are rapidly changing whether you’re working for yourself or you’re trying to pivot. It’s always important to kind of keep on top of your learning and personal development. So I guess we could start with that. What are your thoughts or what’s something maybe you taught yourself how to do?
Chris Sparks: I think that getting stuck is a very normal part of growth, and I think the skill is to both recognize when progress has stalled, when you’re at a plateau, as well as finding a way around the sticking point.
I’m constantly thinking about habits because I think everything that we do in one way or another is a habit. So by becoming aware of our habitual activities, we regain power over them. We can reshape our environment, the context that we put ourselves in, the mindset that we take, and then all of these automatic behaviors that happen outside of our awareness can be bought back within our control.
With learning, it’s very critical to keep the end goal in mind because it can be … Everything can become a rabbit hole if you don’t take the direct path. Something that I learned was productivity. A big part of why I started doing what I’m doing is that I looked at the trajectory of where I was headed, and it was clear that the people who were doing what I wanted to be doing we’re operating at a different level, had different habits, and their day-to-day looked very different. The fastest way to learn productivity was to teach it.
To find an outlet for my consumption was to take what I was learning, apply it. The things that I applied that worked or things that I taught and worked, I tried to distill those down into principles that other people could adopt.
I do in fact think that teaching is in fact the best way to learn, and the way that I went about learning productivity was one small goal at a time, so keeping the goal in mind. So for example, a common habit that many people try to build is something that’s part of a morning routine. Whether that’s working out in the morning, journaling, meditating, could be even getting out of bed without hitting the snooze button. Having that goal in mind … So let’s say it’s getting up without hitting the snooze button. Why is it important? So having that why in mind is very crucial.
For example, maybe the why is getting the day started the right way: starting with a good precedent. If you started the day perfectly, maybe it’ll end perfectly, not wasting time in bed in the morning, not having that alarm sound go off, et cetera. There’s many reasons that you could want to do it but always keeping that reason why in mind.
That reason becomes the driver of how you learn. In the process of learning techniques to get out of bed right away, you build all of these complementary skills: understanding environmental design, understanding sleep and how we wake up, sleep cycles, understanding how habits are built, reshaping that instinctual action we take first thing. Without knowing what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s hard to know the first steps to take. But if you have that vision of where you want to end up, the intermediate steps become clear and all of the learning is in service of that goal.
Nate Cooper: I like that. There’s a lot there. So I’m curious, you started talking about morning routines, what are some sort of early low-hanging fruits that you discovered on your journey?
Chris Sparks: The lowest hanging fruit that I have with every client is getting them on what I call monk mode, which is non-stimuli mornings. I think that this “reactive mode” where we are reacting to what’s in the news, what’s on social media, what’s in our email inbox, other people’s priorities, is counter to the mindset that we need to have to do deep work. We need to encourage ourselves to always do the things that are working on our business rather than in our business, the things that are actually going to move everything forward for us.
The morning is the most critical time because it sets the tone for the rest of the day. My idea with monk mode is putting off these outside stimuli as much as possible to go inward to focus on the things that are important and put ourselves in the best possible position to take on the day.
I try to make the first two hours of the day internet device free. The first hour is a morning routine, and the actual habits that are a part of a morning routine are personal, but I try to incorporate some form of movement, reflection, focus, and planning. Those are kind of the four key ones, 15 minutes each. So for me movement, just active stretching, getting the dust off, reflection, writing in a journal, focus, meditating, and then planning what does a successful day look like? What are my top priorities? Getting an idea of my schedule and figuring out where and when things are going to happen, that’s the first hour of my day every day. I think those specific activities, how you check those boxes can vary, but those four buckets are really critical.
That next hour I call a power hour, where I’m working on my most important thing of the day. I usually operate off Pomodoros, which is basically just setting a timer and working on the thing until the timer goes off. My attitude is that if this two hours goes as planned, so one hour of morning routine, one hour of power hour, then the rest of the day is a complete bonus. That one hour working on my most important thing is worth more than the rest of the day combined.
After that’s done, I’m in a very good position to switch over to what I call “other people’s priorities” as far as handling what’s coming in. Putting out the fires that are urgent but aren’t necessarily moving the business forward. If you have that hour set aside to move forward the vision, everything else can be treated as a bonus because that’s enough to create tight feedback loops, a flywheel of progress that moves things forward.
Nate Cooper: This sounds like you have a very fleshed out and developed process that you take clients through. Who are some of the people that you sort of adopted this from or what are your influences? And where did you get it from?
Chris Sparks: I would first say that these are things that are slowly iterated upon and built over time. I think a lot of people fail in that they try to change everything they do overnight. I try to take a very incremental approach to this. I’ve gotten to such a strong place with my habits and routines by just making small changes regularly. The key habit is regular periods or space for reflection and implementation. Reflecting on one thing that you’d like to change and then putting one thing in action to help change that.
That morning routine I just described is the product of three years of constant trial and error and iteration. But the very beginning is just starting small with “what’s my most important task for today?” Then building from there.
Chris Sparks: As to where I’ve gotten this, luckily the best practices in productivity haven’t changed in decades. When you go back to the original books like Getting Things Done, The Power of Full Engagement, The Effective Executive, The 7 Habits…Those techniques of getting action items out of your head, setting the tone, knowing at all times what’s most important, those principles haven’t changed.
I try to keep focused on the techniques which are universal. I talk less about tools because new tools and apps, those come and go. Our mental habits and frameworks, those are the constant. So I go back to what are the productivity techniques, generally in books, that have lasted throughout time, and those would I try to implement first.
When you start to get further down the learning curve, you hit diminishing marginal returns because every productivity book is saying basically the same thing in different language. Then I look at top performers from other fields that are very process-oriented. What are things that they do that can be imported to knowledge work?
One field that I’ve studied really closely is high-level restaurant chefs because what they do is incredibly process-focused. As a chef, you are making the same dishes over and over, and always looking for any opportunity to cut down steps while not lowering quality. It’s very similar to what we do in knowledge work.
One of my favorite business books, The Goal, which outlines this idea of bottlenecks and constraints, talks about productivity from the perspective of operating a factory. Manufacturing feels so outside the range of our day to day experience, but what is a factory doing? Converting raw materials into final product that is then sold. What are we doing as a content producer? We’re taking our raw ideas, converting them into a book or a blog post, and then getting people to read it.
What are we doing with a tech start-up business? Say we’re making a software product. We’re taking an idea and coding it into a product, which is then sold. This concept of converting raw material into a finished good is a constant.
From each of these different fields there are techniques that they have had to learn through necessity because if they didn’t innovate in that way, they would go out of business.
The routines of professional athletes have a lot to teach us as well. For example, How do you recharge most effectively? What’s the best way to take breaks? How do you get yourself into a state of flow? Looking at the things that they do, you can extract and distill what those best practices are and apply those.
Nate Cooper: I hear a lot about productivity and I love that you’re focused on habit-forming, do you think though that this sort of analogy of the factory removes kind of a human element? How do we, as sort of unique organic beings, how do we act like factories? Or does that sort of diminish it too much?
Chris Sparks: That’s a great question. So, I actually am really putting the human back into it. One of my favorite things to say is that we are the common denominator in all our problems, productivity included. It’s very tempting to look outside of ourselves for solutions, but the reason that we have a hard time getting things done or focusing, is not the fault of Facebook. It is not the fault of people interrupting us. The fault is our own, right? A failure to create expectations, failure to set boundaries and constraints, failure to know what’s important for us, and so I always start with the person at the center. Productivity is a very individual thing.
My role as a coach is to help my clients rediscover what they already knew. In a productivity sense, what works for them, helping them to rediscover that, and then using my expertise to help recreate those conditions of what works really well for them. So it’s a very personal experience of improvement.
On the factory side, you have machines, but you have people operating those machines, so a key aspect of optimizing a factory is getting everyone on the team on the same page. In any process, you need to account for statistical fluctuations, essentially the element of humans taking different amounts of time to do the same things, or doing the same thing in a different way.
I think there’s a necessity to take this element into account with ourselves, and that obviously we are not machines, and we shouldn’t try to make ourselves into a machine. What I do, is try to create systems that are outside and independent of myself that I can count on. I am building machines that I can use, rather than trying to turn myself into one.
Nate Cooper: I really like that and I think that’s really important in terms of the iterative approach that you were talking about. I’ve talked a lot about design thinking in the past and lean methodologies. The idea is that with every iteration, you’re trying to ask the question, is this working? What’s not working? How do we make this better for the person at the end of the day? Is that something that you work in as well?
Chris Sparks: Yeah. I take design thinking into account a lot. A core belief of mine is that our behavior is fairly deterministic in that what we do is determined by the context we put ourselves in. So it’s not that we failed, but that we failed to create a context for success. Think about UX where you’re designing a website in order to get a web visitor to do a desired result, i.e. sign up for a service or buy a product. It’s not that they have failed to purchase, it’s that you have failed to make purchasing an obvious next step. You haven’t created the experience that leads to the goal.
Architecture is essentially UX in real life. The environments that we create: who we’re around, the desirability of our workspace. We create the context that we interact with. We are our own customer, so I really try to account for how can we design our environment so that what we want to do is what we will do?
A core finding from psychology is that we treat our future self as a stranger. We’re constantly kicking the can down the road and saying, “Okay, I’ll do that tomorrow,” or “I’m not going to worry about that until the time comes.” What we can do now, is we create the conditions to help nudge this different person, right? Our self tomorrow is basically a different person. What can we do in order to make what we want them to do more likely? What steps can we take now to create the context where they can’t help but succeed?
That’s really built into the name of my company, The Forcing Function, putting things into place that make future success inevitable. I don’t try to do things. I try to do things to make things easier in the future, right? I don’t do work. I make it easier for myself to do work.
I really like that distinction and that that’s how we determine what we do to improve, identifying sources of friction for our desired action? Thinking in a design context, reducing friction to do what we want ourselves to do, so that in the moment all we need to do is show up and the hard work has already been done.
The simplistic example is I would say ten minutes in the evening is worth one in the morning. What are the things you can do the night before so that when you wake up and you’re a zombie, and you’re a different person, what can you do now to get yourself to do what you want to do in the morning? Can you set out your clothes? If you need anything for your habits, are they out? Is your computer cleared so you don’t open it up and there’s not 100 tabs, right? You can create your own future by changing the context that you will be in.
Nate Cooper: I love the concept of seeing yourself as a customer. It’s important to realize the context we need to perform our best. So, I love that idea of the ten minutes in the evening. Let’s say somebody’s trying to learn something new, but they have trouble. They wanna set themselves to learning new tasks, but they can’t find an interest, or they keep getting distracted. What’s like a really big small thing someone could do when that happens?
Chris Sparks: First I would say around the customer idea, being empathetic with yourself, never beating yourself up for falling short on something that’s hard. This is usually summarized as growth mindset, but I’ve found it valuable to re-frame every setback as a lesson. So there’s no such thing as failure. There are only lessons that we’ve already paid for. Trying to take that approach, especially when we’re learning something new, that failing at something that we’re trying to learn doesn’t mean that we’re a failure. We just haven’t gotten to the point we need to be yet.
The other piece of advice that I would say is anything that you care about, anything that you’re trying to improve, put a number on it. “You improve what you measure” is the often quoted saying. I usually rewrite that as “To improve, make sure that you measure.” Simply by tracking how you’re doing on something, you will notice opportunities to improve it.
So whether that’s your weight, whether that’s how much you’re lifting in the gym, if you are … let’s say I was learning drums, you could be counting the number of errors when playing a track and trying to get that down over time. You don’t even need to set a goal, but make sure that you’re tracking your performance and that the measure is a reliant indicator of improvement, and you will automatically improve. Never underestimate the power of a rising integer, just seeing a positive trajectory over time creates a kind of self-perpetuating cycle of improvement.
Nate Cooper: That’s so great. I interviewed one of the founders of Cave Day in the past, and that’s a day where you go and you work on a project. At the beginning of the day, they ask you, “What percentage do you have done of the project you’re working on?” And at the end of the day, you have to give a percentage. Putting a number to it really gives you a sense of accomplishment. Even though during the day it can feel like, “Oh, I’m getting off track,” or whatever. But, by the end of it I’m like, “Oh yeah. That’s great. I love that.”
You mentioned some books before. Were there any other sort of major books that you think are worth checking out in terms of this behavior, kind of goal setting productivity world that would be useful?
Chris Sparks: Sure. Before I jump into books, two things that you mentioned that I want to make sure to get in that are really embedded in this exercise of what percentage of the way you want to have done, and then at the end saying what percentage you actually are, it’s really subtly powerful.
First is envisioning where you want to be. What will this look like when accomplished? Having a vision of where you’re going to be allows you to recreate those steps to get there. Having a percentage in mind, that’s a deliverable. That’s a set thing that will be different in the physical world between now and in the future. That makes what you need to work on, and more importantly, what is not a step on that path, much more obvious.
Second one is this pre-hindsight idea that I like to think of as predicting the future. When I am trying to do something, I say, “What could happen to prevent myself from doing this?” I can simulate mistakes rather than making them in reality. This comes into play for a project or for learning something.
Let’s say we’re trying to build a meditation habit and that at the end of 30 days, that I have failed to meditate once. What could be some reasons why that was the case? It could be very simple trivial inconveniences like I didn’t download the app or I didn’t find a place to meditate or I never found a way to track completions. Coming up with these reasons why your hypothetical self failed allows you to take those steps now to mitigate those reasons and increase your chances of future success.
That’s another really key one as far as cutting down on the learning curve, is to make most of failures in simulation rather than reality.
Chris Sparks: For books, I have so many. I think the one book that everyone should read in productivity is “Getting Things Done”. The core takeaway there is that the mind is a poor storage device and clearing mental bandwidth via getting things into a system you trust, so not needing to remember to reach out to someone. The importance of not needing to remember what your priorities are by having somewhere that everything is stored in an accessible manner. That’s a kind of a jujitsu, judo move of productivity where clearing up this mental bandwidth allows you to rededicate that focus towards other things.
A couple concepts that I mentioned earlier on that have supporting literature that I love. This bottleneck/theory of constraints idea is found in “The Goal.” That’s the best productivity book that I’ve read this year. It has basically remodeled the way that I do coaching around this core principle that most of our efforts are wasted if they don’t address the bottleneck. At any given time in any pursuit, there is a bottleneck that is most limiting our progress. What we should always be doing is identifying this bottleneck and testing potential ways to alleviate it. The Goal is a business novel in that it walks you through a fictionalized factory and how they improved it, and it seems like it shouldn’t apply to us, but it applies to everything.
Nate Cooper: Interesting.
Chris Sparks: Another one that I loved is called “Work Clean”. This is about distilling the work processes of chefs as I mentioned earlier. Going into the top kitchens, which is cool to see behind the scenes if you’re as interested in food as I am. What are the steps that the top chefs in the world take to make processes as trainable for employees and as error-free as possible so that you turn out an amazing finished product, a meal, every time, even if you aren’t there in the kitchen to supervise? There’s a lot of good takeaways as far as personal productivity and management. How we can optimally plan, how we can interact with our environment in such a way to maximize success.
Nate Cooper: I love cooking as a metaphor too. It’s great. Maybe we can bring it back to this because we’ve talked with a couple of guests about mentorship, and you mentioned you’re a coach. I love how you started, ’cause I found this to be true as a teacher, that you learn so much by giving back and working through things with others. What do you think works about that relationship, whether coaching or mentoring? How does that fit into not only what you do, but what you’ve seen work for people?
Chris Sparks: I’ve learned quite a bit through coaching, mostly by doing things wrong. The way my coaching has evolved is, in the beginning, I thought because I had read all of the books that I had all the answers. I tried to give all the facts and I was surprised to find that wasn’t a good way to get people to change their behavior. I learned that behavior change comes from within and you have to meet people on their own terms. I now see my role as a guide for an experience of co-discovery. It’s better to ask the right questions which have the client self-generate the answers for what they should be doing, rather than having that advice come from me.
It’s a bit of inception in that if something is self-generated, it’s a lot more likely to happen. Being on the other side of the table, I’ve been coached and I’ve been mentored. What I have found works best is someone who leads by example. It’s the old stoic saying is that a true stoic doesn’t go around telling everyone why they should be a stoic, but that their life is the living example. They just act as if they are and people kind of learn by example. The best mentors that I have had, they pass along lessons, but I learned mostly through observation, noticing things that they wouldn’t even think to bring up, that they do so naturally. They just embody traits that I find admirable.
I think a good filter for finding mentors is do you want their life? Their advice is always going to be coming from a position of n=1, like this is what worked for me. Look at the results that they’ve gotten with the advice and make sure that those are the results that you want for yourself. Don’t take advice from anyone who you wouldn’t trade places with them.
As far as like being a good mentee, you make the ask as low as possible by just being a shadow. Take the effort off them. They don’t need to do anything different, just see if you can follow them during a typical day. You’ll learn way more through observing someone then you will through any conversation because so many of the things that we do are, as I said, habitual. They’re outside of our frame of awareness. They wouldn’t even know to bring them up. That’s a good way to make the ask very low, to make it easier on them and you’ll actually get a lot more just by observing.
Nate Cooper: I totally agree with that. I love all that. This has been really helpful. I feel like there’s tons of useful things you’ve given and I appreciate you taking the time. Is there anything we didn’t cover in terms of productivity, personal development, habit-forming, learning a skill, that you wanted to mention?
Chris Sparks: Nate, you know I could go on this stuff forever. One takeaway I would have for people is if you’re looking to improve on something, focus on why you are trying to improve it rather than just improving the system. We can tweak our routines and our habits forever, but if they’re not in the service of something, it’s just a form of masturbation. Know what you’re trying to accomplish and fully commit to that goal. Then all of the next steps will become obvious. You will see a vision of who you need to be to accomplish that goal, comparing to who you are now. That list of differences between who you are and who you need to be, those are the skills that you need to build. You can really focus and concentrate your efforts by having that goal in mind.
Nate Cooper: That’s right on. I dig that completely. Chris, remind us how we can get in touch with you or if people wanna learn more about your coaching practice.
Chris Sparks: I’d love to hear from anyone who this interview resonated with. If you have any questions or would like to talk more, you can get in touch with me through my website. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Please reach out, I do this to help people and I love having conversations around this stuff.
I’ve also written about a lot of this. My book’s about halfway done. There’s ten chapters out on Medium: medium.com/sparksremarks. The book is called “Inflection Point”.
Nate Cooper: That’s awesome. Chris, thank you so much for taking the time.
Chris Sparks: This was a lot of fun Nate. Thank you so much.
Nate Cooper: This has been Cut Your Learning Curve podcast with Nate Cooper. Join the conversation online. Go to natecooper.co/free. There you can join our newsletter or you can get in touch with me if you wanna build a membership site or online course using WordPress. Thank you for listening and happy learning.
I’m Chris Sparks, founder of The Forcing Function, helping entrepreneurs multiply their productivity by designing the habits and systems which maximize personal effectiveness.
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