Chris Sparks — Performance vs Productivity, The 4-Hour Workday, and More Wood Behind Fewer Arrows
In the first official episode (which is brought to you by Flow), I sit down with Chris Sparks (@sparksremarks)— one of Top 20 poker players in the world, and now a high performance coach to many of the world’s best entrepreneurs and investors — to discuss:
- Why he focuses on holistic performance rather than just brute force productivity.
- Why reflection is underrated and how it can help you level up in work and in life.
- Why many of the world’s top performers work for just 4 hours per day.
- And how you can spot the bottlenecks that are holding you back.
It’s an incredible episode that’s packed with big ideas and simple tools you can start applying today.
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“If you can improve fast enough in the right areas, then the score will take care of itself.” — Chris Sparks
Imagine blocking your emails until noon each day. What could you get done if you weren’t reacting to your inbox?
This might sound unfathomable, but Chris Sparks (@sparksremarks), Founder and CEO of The Forcing Function, has seen this simple practice greatly boost executives’ productivity. Because you’re not immediately opening yourself up to the outside world, you can fully focus on accomplishing your top priorities for the day.
(And guess what? The world won’t catch fire if you don’t respond to an email immediately!)
This is just one of the dozens of strategies Chris teaches when coaching executives, investors, and founders on how to live their most productive lives through his company, The Forcing Function.
So how did Chris become a productivity expert? In his last year of college, he discovered online poker, and he quickly became one of the top 20 poker players in the world.
Chris discovered the skills he’d picked up at the poker table were extremely valuable in the business world.
On the premiere episode of Outliers, Daniel Scrivner talks with Chris about all things productivity. He shares favorite tools to help him stay focused — surprisingly, there aren’t any apps on this list. Instead, he favors a simple cube timer — to block off high productivity time slots — and a yellow notepad, where he jots down his random thoughts throughout the day.
Chris also shares his stance on taking supplements (spoiler: he’s not a huge fan of them), using productivity tools and apps (another spoiler: he thinks many of them are unnecessary), and he reveals his daily caffeine routine, which doesn’t include coffee.
For more, join our newsletter at Outliers.fm/newsletter. Each week we send out a single email that contains all of the best quotes, themes, and ideas from each episode.
This episode is brought to you by Flow! Every single day, hundreds of thousands of teams in more than 140 countries use Flow to save time, hit deadlines, and work brilliantly. Flow combines powerful features with world-class design, to create a productivity app that you and your team will actually love using. And for the last 18 months they’ve been working on something big. It’s a brand-new version of Flow, that they call Flow X. And it’s the embodiment of everything they’ve learned helping teams achieve more over the last 10 years. Take your team’s work to the next level with Flow X. To get exclusive early access, visit GetFlow.com/Flow-X.
Connect with Chris
Links from the Episode
- Top Resources for Productivity and Performance
- ”Experiment Without Limits” Workbook
- Performance Assessment
- Team Performance Training
- Additional resources
“I think a lot of productivity is almost a gateway drug for people in that there’s this fascination of, ‘If I master this tool, if I acquire this habit, all of my problems are going to go away.’ And I like to say we’re the common denominator in all of our productivity struggles. No tool, no system, no routine is going to change anything until we ourselves change.”
“The best way to waste time is to sprint as fast as you can in the wrong direction.”
“Time is like an investment portfolio, and certain times our portfolio becomes overweight toward one part. … Reflection allows us to take a step back, and say, ‘Well, how can I rebalance this portfolio? Is the way that I’m spending my time currently in line with my priorities?’”
“The way you save maximum time is to make mistakes in simulation rather than reality.”
“Never underestimate the power of compounding. And I think with working out, I would say it’s much harder to go from zero pushups a day to one pushup a day than it is to go from one pushup a day to a hundred.”
“‘What if I could only accomplish one thing today and have the day be great, what would that thing be?’ And you spend, say, the first 60 to 90 minutes of your day working on that thing, then you could treat the whole rest of the day as a bonus.”
Planning → experimentation → reflection → repeat
“I do think a lot of things can be thought of in terms of loops, and the loop of planning, experimentation, and reflection is key to the acceleration of any skill acquisition or to the achievement of any goal. … The faster we can iterate through those, the faster we can do anything.”
A case for the 4-hour workday…
“I honestly think no one actually can do more than four hours of good work a day, and the rest of the day is, ‘What should I be spending those four hours on?’ and clean-up maintenance and systems improvements. There are a lot of people out there trying to work 12 hours a day at a fairly low level and on fairly low-leverage things that aren’t actually moving the ball forward.”
Take your to-do list and cross off half the items.
“Any time I work with a client I have them list out all the things they’re currently doing, and I just put a line through half of them. It’s like, ‘These are the things that you were no longer going to be doing.’ It’s like the ‘more wood behind fewer arrows’ approach.”
When optimizing your productivity, start with the low-hanging fruit.
“I ask upfront: ‘Think back to the time you were most productive in your life. What did that feel like? List out five things you were doing then that you’re not doing now. … That’s the low-hanging fruit; that’s the place to start. You already know what was working well for you — start there. You don’t need to find a solution outside of yourself, like reading another self help book or scanning Twitter. Those are things working for other people. … Knowing thyself starts with knowing what works well for yourself.”
Make a 1% improvement each day — then watch that compound.
“In a figurative sense, expectations become a prison for us, because we are constantly judging. … Instead, we trust the process. We think about, how can we get started? How can we take one more step? There’s a lot of this notion — especially in Silicon Valley of these quantum leaps or 10 — and I think when it comes to the self, it’s incremental, but all the time — this 1% every day. You never underestimate the power of compounding.”
Put your blinders on to help improve your focus.
“The way we improve our focus is we put our blinders on — we have constraints. This is what we’re focused on, and by definition, everything that’s outside of the circle is not things we’re concerned about and thus we can ignore them. There’s a lot of power in moving very quickly by knowing what to ignore. And I think that’s the biggest benefit of planning is not only you’re deciding what you’re doing, but you’re deciding what you’re paying attention to.”
Why having a plan is key.
“Another benefit of having a plan is you have something to compare to. It’s hard to know how the day went if you didn’t know how it was supposed to go, and something we will find is that it’s easy to backward rationalize anything.”
The incredible power of a $20 cube timer.
“So much of procrastination is a failure to get started. It’s looking at this blank page. How do you write an essay? … I’d like to talk about it as a verb change: What’s the smallest possible step of going from, ‘I’m going to do this thing’ to ‘I’m doing this thing.’ A lot of that is just lowering the bar for how far I need to go before I can take a break, before I can celebrate. For me, I default to operating in 25-minute cycles… A lot of times I will set a timer for five minutes and say, ‘For the next five minutes, I’m only going to do this thing.’ … It’s minimizing the time to allocate to something and creating that constraint.”
The benefits of not checking your email in the morning.
“One interesting correlation I’ve found with the executives I work with and their productivity is the first time they check their email is the strongest negative correlation with how much they get done in the day. The earlier they check the email, the less they get done. It will blow someone away to discover the world will not catch on fire if you don’t check your email for a couple of hours. But if you spend a little bit of time on your most important thing of the day before you flip over to the world, you’ll just feel so much more sane, and the most important projects to move forward.”