Too many people major in minor things. Anyone who responds with “busy” every time you ask them how they’re doing is likely not a productive asset to their company. Why are people busy? It’s typically an inability to prioritize, a refusal to delegate, and an unwillingness to tackle the hardest tasks. So they fill their day moving paper around and responding to emails while the wealthy focus on a few big things and ruthlessly cut everything out of their schedule.
In this episode, we dive into the psychological barriers involved with “busy” people and talk about how you can switch your focus.
Watch the episode here
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Are You Too “Busy” To Be Productive?
Why The Wealthiest People Are Rarely The “Busiest”
Ian, you son of a bitch.
I’m so busy. I barely had time to get on to record with you. It’s amazing that two busy guys like us still have time. I get asked that all the time like, “Ian, you’re such a busy guy. How do you have a podcast? How are you able to do it?” I got to tell you, it’s tough. I’m busy, Frank.
My incredible co-worker.
I have a great boss and Frank Cava helps enable me to do things like record shows. It’s important. One of the most annoying things that people can say to me is that they’re busy. I tend to not have a lot of respect for it. The people who always tell me they’re busy, Frankie, are usually the ones who don’t do much. They’re the employees that weren’t kicking a lot of asses. Part of the reason why I have that feeling is I had an executive assistant and I’ve talked about her on here before. You love it because she used to get yelled at a lot by my boss.
This was in 2005 when I started working at NVR. That president didn’t know how to use a computer so she had to read all of his emails for him. A lot of people use an assistant to scan email but truly, he didn’t have a computer. Her job was a necessary one because the president of a mortgage company gets emails all the time. She would get an email, print it and run it into his office. He wanted it within seconds because like any president would read their emails, he didn’t so she would run it into them. She did all kinds of other little stupid stuff that anyone with a computer would know how to do.
Glenda did all kinds of garbage and then our president, who was not good at technology left. Glenda was the only executive assistant left because when Dwight went to Chairman, he quit coming around. His old assistant was mean as a rattlesnake and she did the same shit that Glenda did for Bill. She didn’t do much either but when he quit coming to the office, she was let go by Paul Seville because he didn’t her. We have a new president and she’s trying to find work. Our new president was like, “Ian, she can be your executive assistant too.” I’m like, “I’m not sure.” She comes in and was like, “Do you want me to read your email and work on your calendar setup?” I’m like, “No. I use Outlook. I do all of this stuff.”
Our new president was the same. He couldn’t figure out what to use her for but she was a sacred cow. She’d been around a long time. She was super nice and sweet but all day long, she was scurrying back and forth in our office. It’s like, “Glenda, how’s it going?” It was always the same like, “It’s busy bees around here.” I’d always think, “Doing what? I know you don’t do much for my new boss. You don’t do anything for me.” She would print these old reports that no one reads anymore and drop them on our desks. Unfortunately, the next president came in. He wasn’t so nice and was like, “What does she do all day? I don’t need her.” She was no longer useful because her whole position was created because of someone else’s lack of technology incompetence.
She wasn’t productive so she leaned in on busy. She scurried around all day and never want to be seen sitting still. I always have thought of her whenever anyone says busy to me. It’s ruined that word because when she would say busy, it always made me think, “Bullshit. You’re not doing anything. We’re wasting money with you.” She didn’t report to me so I didn’t have to make that decision. Someone else did but I always think about people that tell me they’re busy all the time as Glenda.
My first introduction to busyness and the negative association with it was this. It’s 2008. We’re going through a downturn. I used to have a staff of 75 people. We’re down to 23. Someone in corporate called us up and they wanted us to do something. At that time, I was like, “This is so stupid.” They wanted me to go down to half of a manager. I remember thinking, “They’re out of touch.” Their quote was, “You’re closing fourteen houses a month. What are you so busy doing?” As a young person, I was pissed because I was like, “Screw them. They’re insensitive. They don’t understand it.” However, there’s been a change. When someone tells me how busy they are, it’s my money at risk.
We’re closing 17 deals a month with 40 people and I hear how busy everyone is. I was like, “With what? My staff is going through leadership essentials with you. The reason they’re doing that is because I want them to fine-tune what they’re spending their time on.” What people do a lot of is major in minor stuff. It’s a big deal. They go for the dopamine hit and the low-hanging fruit. We can explain the boxes. They go to the wrong box and spend their time on the wrong things. They are busy but they’re not productive. They’re not moving the needle. It’s pervasive and there’s a currency to busyness that we reward in a society that I don’t think we should.There is a currency to busyness that society should probably not be rewarding. Click To Tweet
I love that line, Frank, that they major in minor stuff because too many people equate activity with production. Busyness is a symbol of status in the United States. I feel it always has been. Americans don’t vacation like Europeans and other parts of the world. They don’t take time off for maternity and paternity. We want to be seen as busy and productive. I’m all for being productive. I’m not here to argue for idle time. It’s pop culture. Gordon Gekko’s famous line is, “Money never sleeps.”
Gordon Gekko, for those of you that don’t know, is in Wall Street. It’s a famous ‘80s movie.
It’s a fantastic movie. If you’re a follower of this show, you know that movie Money Never Sleeps. He called Bud at 5:00 in the morning on the beach and is like, “You’re working?” He said, “Money never sleeps, pal.” We lionize Wall Street. There are so many movies on Wall Street because it’s so intense. The rocker Warren Zevon’s famous line is, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” There’s a lot of that stuff out there that’s part of our culture. When you think about entrepreneurs, you think about immigrants coming off the boat in Ellis Island getting to work right out of the gate and making money in America. That’s part of our ethos. Your dad, my dad, my father-in-law.
Also, our grandfathers for sure.
They didn’t have a lot of choices. How do you make money? You grind. If you worked on a farm, ours usually equated to money and eating. The more you worked, the more seeds you laid, the more you tended to your crops, the better your crop, the more yield you had, the more you could sell it at the local farmer’s market and the more your family ate. I’m not against hard work. In that world, working hard is noble but in a gig economy and knowledge economy like we have, being busy for the sake of it isn’t going to make you a hell of a lot of money.
This is interesting. I can remember growing up as a child of blue-collar people, being in a corporate setting and realizing I’m in a different world. We’re not in Kansas anymore. I can remember where I was standing when it happened. Ian, do you know why schools use bells to measure the start of the day like the beginning in class and end of a class?
I do not.
You should. It comes from Henry Ford’s production line at Ford. What they would do is they would use a bell to signal things and they trigger us. To what you were talking about, the bell measures something like, “It’s time to do this or move to this. Start, stop or break.” That’s why we used the bell and they did it in the schools to indoctrinate us to that system. It’s because when you get out of school, you move to the factory and they want you to know that when the bell rings, you do something. That’s how the whole thing with bells started. The reason I used that analogy quickly was this.
We’re accustomed to or raised in a different world. Technology and society are moving faster than they ever have. Hundreds of years ago, nearly 85% of people on this planet farmed. Now that number is under 8% because we’ve evolved and we have technology but the human body hasn’t changed that much. What happens is there is idleness in people. When you’re talking about busyness, it trades like a currency. This is what I remember from being a 25-year-old. I was standing in the kitchen at the Washington West office and there was a bunch of admins and mid-level managers who were all gossiping. What I realized is they are capped on their income because of the roles they’re in, where they’re going, their aspirations or whatever it is. There’s a ceiling.
What they realized is, “I can’t make this money that I might want so I’m going to trade in a different currency,” and it’s gossip. He used to sit around and he used to bitch. I remember watching it and being fascinated by it. Jerry Seinfeld has a line. He goes, “We are not men.” “You’re right. We’re not.” This isn’t the work that was done hundred years ago but it’s what’s become of work. Gossiping a currency is one thing but so too is busyness. Busyness gives you significance. When I tell someone, “I’m busy, I’m in the club. I have significance. Look and pay attention to me, I’m so busy,” we’re rewarding the wrong things. The gossip culture and the busyness culture are the wrong stuff. It’s not what you’re doing. It’s the fact that you’re showing up.
Frankie, have you heard of a term called effort justification?
Effort justification is a social psychology term. It’s a paradigm that’s similar to cognitive dissonance. It’s pretty much a person’s tendency to attribute the value of effort as greater than the value of the actual outcome. Have you ever had a coach that you’re like, “We gave it our best today,” and the coach is like, “You didn’t win. The whole point is to win. Giving your best isn’t catching you on the field?” We’ll go back to high school football. What did training camp do for most teams? What did two-a-day and hot August practices in Southern Florida feel like? I can’t imagine what Southern Florida felt like in Pats. What did it do for the team?
It was a crucible. What I think of two-a-day in high school football or what I think about the most is it was miserable but I was with my brothers and it forged a bond. I wasn’t going through this alone. He was the force on the other side forcing us to all be together because there was going to be a moment when he needed to flip that switch and us to all work in unison with each other. He pushed us so damn hard that we had to work together.
You’re a Kenny Chesney guy. What’s the famous line in The Boys of Fall?
The song is called The Boys of Fall by Kenny Chesney. “They didn’t let anybody in that club. Took every ounce of heart and sweat and blood. To get to wear those game day jerseys down the hall. Kings of the school man, we’re the boys of fall.” It’s a line about wearing the jersey down the hall. If you ever played a sport, you got to wear your jersey on Friday, which was the coolest thing. I remember getting a job going into my senior year of high school and thinking about I needed to buy clothes. That was my responsibility. I’m like, “I only need to buy four shirts because, on Friday, I get to wear my jersey.”
As a freshman, that’s all I ever wanted. It was to wear a varsity football and baseball jersey. Looking up at the seniors and all that, you got to pay a price to get into it. A lot of people justify it but when it comes to work, it’s not the greatest idea. A lot of people will stay with a company because it grinds them so hard. I’ll go back to the Wall Street ethos which is to work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. A lot of people in their mind are like, “Not everyone can get in this club and work at some hedge fund or private equity firm because people don’t have the same tolerance for pain that I do, that I’m able to go put in more time and effort than the average bear.”
That doesn’t mean you’re not being productive working 7 days, 16 hours a day. I’m here to tell you that at least 30 of those hours are a waste because your brain is not working as well. I don’t know what you’re doing for some of those hours but a lot of people justify it. It’s no different than going through a fraternity at college. Pledgeship is brutal. You’re chewed out, kept up all night and hazed all the freaking time.
When people got in, there was a different respect you had for people that they came in. A lot of this is part of our culture in America of feeling that pride of not everyone can go through this grind, even though we’re not all that productive. It wasn’t terribly productive to go through pledgeship and get hazed. It’s not a great thing but there was a different respect you had for it once you got through it.Part of the American culture is the feeling of pride that not everyone can go through this grind, even though we're not all being that productive. Click To Tweet
Speaking of effort justification, I thought of something. Have you ever heard of the term neps?
Neps is for people of nepotism or people who have risen through the ranks because of an unfair advantage that society puts on them. One of Barack Obama’s kids was an example of a nep. I read this. I had never heard it. There was a juxtaposition against neps. Do you know in 2022 what 93 of the top hundred TV shows were?
Reality TV shows.
Sporting events like the Super Bowl, playoff games and a lot of football. The argument that I heard was this. The reason that sports is so incredibly popular is because it’s the last place where there is a brutal meritocracy. The only people who make it are the ones who have merit and have earned it. Society around the globe tunes into it. Think about what’s happening with soccer. In the UAE, they’re spending $250 million to lure. They’re about to lure Messi there. They got Ronaldo not too long ago for $250 million. It’s so attractive in the world to have sports because it’s the last place where it comes down to no BS. You can’t just be busy with sports. You better be good or you’re going to be cut. That’s why society responds so incredibly well to it.
Hasn’t it been fascinating to you how Kobe Bryant’s brand has changed so much after his career? Not just since he died but after his career. When he was playing, especially in the last few years, a lot of people didn’t like Kobe because he was prickly. He wasn’t always thought of as a great teammate. You were a Lakers fan or you weren’t a Kobe fan because he’d rubbed people the wrong way. After the fact, his brand took off with the whole Mamba mentality. People started hearing the stories about how many hours a day he put into his craft. They’re talking about 10 to 12-hour days on the gym floor with 3 different sessions and the way he ate at work.
We lionize folks to do that stuff. When it comes to sports, that worked. All of that starts to seep into office jobs too, where you see, “That’s what society values a guy like Kobe who out-grinds everybody and has massive success.” Even if I’m an accountant, I think, “That’s what society values. I should grind lots of hours. Even though I might not have a lot of work to do, I’m going to put more time in and be seen as busy because that’s what society values.”
We were having a conversation before we started. We’re going to talk about interviewing and what we talked about in the interview is the STAR. The Situation, Task, the Action and the Result. If you’re not a good interviewer, you get buffaloed by people because you don’t go after those things. It’s no different for a good employee. I had someone call me up and he wants to meet with me. It’s somebody who works here and he’s like, “I need more time with you.” I said, “Let me tell you how to get more time with me. Add more value to the company.” He goes, “How’s that going to get me more of your Facetime?”
I said, “If you become more valuable to the company, you’re going to make it into more meetings than I’m in. Also, you are going to have more time to rub shoulders with me because you’re making the company more money. You’re making us more valuable, a better business and a better brand. That’s what you need to do.” He goes, “How do I do that?” I said, “What are you working on?” He explained it. I said, “What were you working on two years ago?” The answer is smaller projects.
I’m like, “It doesn’t feel like you’re doing it because you’re grinding your way through it but you’re 100% doing it. You’re getting bigger opportunities. You’re building a $1 million house instead of a $100,000 house. That’s because we trust you and we know you can do these things.” Many people lose sight of that and get caught up in other emotions. That is what society does. It rewards you in ways that are more work. If you’re a good producer, we lean into you. If you’re someone who finds yourself stalled, you’re probably focusing on the wrong things. You need to ask yourself, “Am I asking the right questions? Am I talking to the right people? Am I seeking the right feedback? Am I guiding myself properly through this process or am I busy?”If you find yourself stalled, you’re probably focusing on the wrong things. Ask yourself if you are talking to the right people or seeking the right feedback. Click To Tweet
Frank, I’ll ask you this. When you were busy, did you feel like you were more valuable when you were younger versus now? I did. When I was younger, I thought about being busy like, “I must be important to my company if I’m this busy and they trust me with all this stuff.” I thought about it differently than I think about busyness now.
I’m going to answer this question a little bit differently, as a dad. I want to instill a hard work ethic in my children but I’m old. I’m to a point in my life where I could probably afford to be less busy but I’m a little bit scared that I’m going to set the wrong precedence with my kids because if I’m not busy, what are they going to think Dad is doing?
I’m going to tee this up for you in a second. When I was a kid, there was a guy with very old parents whose parents were retired and I always thought that kid was soft. He was 6’7”. He was on our football team. He did not have the work ethic. If he had the work ethic that we had, you’d know his name. He would’ve gone to college if he had the skills but he doesn’t have a work ethic.
His parents were retired. It always scares the crap out of me when I think about that kid. I’m like, “I can’t be idle because my kids are going to see somebody who’s idle.” What I respect very much about you is you do smart work. Your kids know you work hard but you do it in a way that you’re not at the mine. You’re not doing 70 hours a week anymore. It’s a very different type of work. Our society does reward hard work and some people don’t know how to do the right thing. I’m going to be busy to set an example. It’s complicated.
I’ll tell you, Frank, I was busy for twenty years. I worked a lot of hours. I would never consider myself a busy person. I considered myself productive. I got a lot of shit done and I was asked to do a lot. I then started my own thing. I went from being sixteen hours a day traveling a lot to I didn’t have anything going on. It drove me nuts. I went old hog into this thing and there’s not a lot to do. In the beginning, I even tried to keep myself busy doing things. A lot of it didn’t generate much money. You and I have been talking about this a lot. In 2023, through a confluence of events of a lot of the gigs that I’ve got going on, I have a lot spiking all at once. Over the last 60 days, I’ve been irritated because I’ve been busy. I feel like a lot of it is busy work.
When I’m busy, I don’t feel like, “I’m so productive.” Now, I’m annoyed. When I study it, there are some bad habits in there. There are some things that I’ve held onto that I need to let go of. I need to delegate, find an employee or do something different because my opportunities have gone up a lot in 2023 for whatever reason. I’m still trying to do it the way I used to. I need to figure out where am I spending my time in areas that I could probably farm out or find someone else to do in different areas. It’s also forced me to quit doing some things I was doing that weren’t generating a lot of money.
I’m not writing for certain publications anymore. I’m not writing my blog. I’ve given up some things that weren’t productive but they kept me busy. Being in my 40s, I get annoyed when I’m busy because I know that that’s sloppiness on my part. It’s probably bad habits. It’s not, “You’re busy so that means you’re doing a great job. How much more money are you making? If it’s a lot more, okay but what am what are my trade-offs?”
I’ve been doing this for so long at this point. I almost can’t remember what it was like on the other side of it. When I realized I was better at manning my schedule than other people, my life changed drastically. What I realized was this. People who weren’t as successful as me, people who didn’t have the resources, the company or however you want to measure it were often trying to dictate their schedules on me.
I remember putting my foot down and saying, “No. Here are the windows of time that I will meet with you. Here are the times that we’re going to do this or this is how we’re going to do this.” I get made fun of for being a control freak. In some ways, perhaps. The way that I’ve elevated myself is I say no to a lot of stuff. You have to do it on my term and bring it to me these ways because I have a ton of demands. With the number of emails, phone calls and texts I get, there are constant distractions that don’t move the needle.
Have you ever stopped to see Frankie when you get the majority of your emails? Have you ever considered it? You get a lot of emails but have you ever noticed when your influxes are?
We’re leading into a 3-day or 4-day holiday weekend. I know they’re going to stop over the next couple of days because most people are off. I can tell you when I don’t get emails. It’s 6:00 on a Sunday morning. You usually get them when people are at work.
What time, in particular, do you normally get a whole bunch of influx?
Fifteen minutes after someone gets to work.
You’re nailing it. In my experience, 80% to 90% of people come into the office. They bullshit for fifteen minutes with people in the office and take a while to get their coffee settled in. The first thing 80% of people do is turn on their Outlook and see what emails came from the time they left. They scroll up and down. They reply, forward, read and send a few extras out. The average person probably blows the first 90 minutes of their day glaring into Outlook. I work mainly with managers and managers are no different. Managers are maybe even worse than frontline workers on this.
The question I always ask is, do you think your inbox is your to-do list or is it a collection of other people’s to-do lists than pounding out tasks onto you that maybe they could be doing themselves? When they think about it that way, it’s never their to-do list. Your inbox is not on your priority list unless you sent the email to yourself to go do something. It’s someone else’s priority list and they’re trying to get you to do some work. People that focus all of their time that start every day with 90 minutes in their Outlook are busy people. These are not productive individuals.
These are people that don’t know how to build their priorities for the day and don’t know how to build a to-do list that’s productive for the company, themselves and their wealth. These are people that are at the whim of other people that chase around a bunch of requests and other things. It’s scary how many people do exactly what I’m saying and spend the first 90 minutes of the day idly staring at their Outlook.
When you get into busyness and you get into a schedule, there are two different things. Let’s talk about employees first and busyness. What Ian talked about is when you’re an employee and you have a boss, which everybody who works here reports to me in some way or another, what I tell people is this. I do not get into my email that often. I have someone who checks it and if you send me an email, call me if you need me to look at it soon or if it’s urgent. We had a meeting and I hadn’t seen an email that was sent on Thursday. It was the end-of-day Tuesday. I said, “Is it urgent?” He said, “I’d like an answer.” I said, “You should have also called me because I don’t sit and look at my email.”
I’ll go 3 or 4 days without opening my email because my email doesn’t make me any money. It doesn’t keep the company ahead. It’s a mechanism for us to have a conversation because you didn’t want to walk down the hall or pick up the phone. That’s one thing. If you were an entrepreneur and looking to get away from the busyness trap and I am an entrepreneur who is looking to get away from it, what did I do when I was in the loop of I was slow and then I got busy with a bunch of tasks that didn’t move the needle? I did some crazy things that most people would say are stupid but they worked for me. I hired a couple of people because then I was beholden to others and I knew that I had to produce for these people to remain employed. That was leverage for me.
Not only produce. That’s a big one. I got to bring in revenue because I have a cost line item. Not only am I bringing in revenue to keep for myself but I have to cover their costs. I have to bring in twice the revenue to cover the cost. The second big thing about that, Frank, that I love that you brought up is you look like an asshole if you hire someone and they don’t have anything to do. It sounds strange but when you hire someone, even though you’re busy, it takes a lot of managers a long time to give things up they were doing beforehand.
When you got them there and you know they’re bored, it forces you to delegate things and show them, “Here’s how I do this. Here’s what I do. I need you to take this off me. Here’s the outcome I need. Here’s when I need it by,” because it’s a lot of work to delegate. If you hire someone, they’re going to be looking at you like, “Do you want to pay me now because I didn’t do anything? You haven’t given me enough work.” It forces you to push off busy work and give it to someone who’s at a lower pay grade that you brought in to help you with.
The other thing I did was I set meetings early in the morning with agendas on certain days of the week. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I had early morning meetings, 8:30 to 9:00. At the point of my life when I started this, I was staying up way later. I didn’t have kids. Getting out of the house early in the morning was harder for me. Most normal human beings are productive between 9:00 and 5:00 or 8:00 to 4:00. That’s what your offer letter says. What I would do is set meetings with an agenda and it was the first thing in the morning. I didn’t want people slow, lazy or not have enough work so there was a weekly rhythm. It was their job to fill up the rhythms of the meetings with the things that they needed.
The first thing in my day was the most important meeting of my day. I didn’t run into the office and immediately look at my email. I went right into a meeting room. Often, I’d skip my office and go right to the conference room because that was way more important than anything that was sitting in my inbox. I was touching the people in the business. We were talking about things. We were problem-solving and looking ahead. That is the way that I built my rhythms. Every morning, we have a call at 8:48 and I typically have a meeting by 9:00 or 9:15. Right out of the gate, I’ll do thinking before that but I have meetings. I’m interacting with people and touching the business. I’m not sitting looking at my email because it’s building rhythms in your business that are impactful.
Which people in your business were you touching, Frank?
I’m touching in a way that was legal.
What Frank is talking about there is you start with the big things and get them out of the way in the day. Whatever fell into your email, you get to it later in the day. You at least will feel productive if you get into some of this. Part of what’s behind this, we talked about one psychological phenomenon which is effort justification. Another one that I find equally interesting is idleness aversion. All this says is that humans cannot stand idleness. If you left someone in a room, the worst thing you can do to someone in prison is put them in solitary confinement. Solidarity confinement is what it sounds like. You sit in a room and have nothing. You have no light, no interaction with people, nothing. It’s the worst thing you could do to someone in prison.
A psychologist, Timothy Wilson, did a social experiment. They found that 67% of men and 25% of women chose to press a button that gave them an electrical shock rather than sit still with their thoughts in a lab room. They put them in a lab room and said, “You can either sit here and think for several hours or if you push this button, you’ll get shocked.” They got so bored they couldn’t stand there with their thoughts that they started shocking themselves. Two-thirds of the men would rather give themselves an uncomfortable electrical shock than sit there and think. That’s an explanation of idleness aversion.
Are you the guy that scratched the back of your neck with the microphone to start this episode?
I might be.
Production value is high. When I learned of the idleness aversion, I thought of something very different. I thought of your iPhone and how much time it traps you in. I have a harder time reading books because most of what I consume I read on my phone. I read the Wall Street Journal, ESPN and all these things on my phone. It’s more active for your brain. I thought this was interesting. According to a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, using your phone in between important tasks decreases your ability to focus. The finding suggests that it’s best to try not to look at your phone while doing things that require your full attention. They joke such as projects or riding your bike. You’re doing two things at once.
What you led with being in solitary confinement and people wanting to give themselves shocks because they’re sitting there for too long and then we’re built to not have the ability to work our way through things because of our phones. Our phones get us constantly addicted to doing things that are for busyness. You can’t do this but I do. I’ve got 40-ish people working here. How often do you think I walk around the office and I see people in some social media outlet or on their phone? It’s constant. You told me yourself. What you do when you want to focus, especially when you were writing a lot is you put blocks on your phone or your email. You couldn’t be interrupted because you needed that space to do things and produce.
Worse, I would leave it in my truck in the parking lot when I needed to write something and hunker down. When I was building my management program, Frankie, 100% this happened. I would leave my phone in my car and tell Jenny, “You’re not going to be able to get ahold of me until about 2:00 because I’m leaving my phone in my truck. I need about six hours where I can jam. I’m going to be on my computer. I’m writing, building slides, putting something together and studying.” I couldn’t have my phone there because it would take me 5 times as long to build the same 20-minute lesson. I couldn’t do it.
I want to interrupt before we get on the next one and say this quickly. Busyness is a trap that everyone can fall into. We’re going to get into next and talk about what managers can do about this. You are the one who’s in control of your destiny. No one told Ian to leave his phone in his truck. He decided to do it. No one told me to put meetings to the front of my day. I decide to do it. You have to be the arbiter of your time and production. It’s very hard to measure these things. You have to have an incredible amount of determination to do it. You have to be mindful of it or what will happen is society, your phone and other distractions will swallow you up.
We can’t stand to be idle. Managers were freaked out all around the world when COVID-19 happened and everyone was at home that people from home were going to work less and be less productive. All the studies showed they all worked more hours. The reason they worked more hours is they’re bored as hell at home so they would be on their computer. The problem is, was that work productive or was it people creating more bullshit Zoom meetings? You and I never went through this. One because you didn’t let people work from home, which was genius and we didn’t keep either. The other piece that you didn’t go through this is you don’t love meetings.
I knew a ton of people where I’d be like, “What’d you do today?” They’d be like, “I was in nine Zoom meetings.” I’d be like, “Wow. That’s a pretty wild day.” They’re like, “No. That’s every day.” Many people got logged into Zoom meetings after Zoom meetings all day. That was idleness aversion. That was people creating stuff on their calendars to make themselves feel this is better than not doing anything. How productive was it? I would argue that a ton of unnecessary work was generated during COVID-19, which is why most companies are overstaffed because there are a lot of people doing unnecessary tasks. Let’s get into this, Frank. If you’re a manager or someone who struggles with this, what can you do?
One of the first things you can do is reward output and not activity. Commission salespeople are my favorite example of this. The fully commissioned salespeople are like, “Screw around all you want all day, I’m not paying you. You get paid by the sales you bring in. Realtors, you can clown and mess around on social media all day. You can do whatever you want. It’s not going to make shit.” Commissioned salespeople are good examples. I’ll use us as an example. After this episode, Frank and I were talking to a different social media marketing firm. The reason why we’re talking to a different one, Frank and I haven’t put a ton of time into our social media. We’ve outsourced it.
We pay a monthly fee and we’re getting what we ask for, which is they drop a whole bunch of posts all over our social media. We’re getting exactly what we asked for. They post a bunch of shit and no one engages. What they post has no rhyme or reason. It’s not produced too well but it’s also cut up wrong. It’s not cut up with full thoughts. It’s doing us more harm than good spending this money but we’re paying them for activity, not output.
If we are paying them based on engagement or growing our following, if we made them an owner like us and gave them some metrics that we would like to get out of our money, that’s what we’re talking to this next person about. We want to pay him to think like we would, which is we want to grow the following of this show. We want to grow our viewership and engagement back and forth with us. If that’s what we pay for, we’re going to get a better result.
There are a few ways you can do this. Salespeople are the easiest by far but a little bit over half of my company is wedded to monthly, quarterly and annual results. If you do it that way, then everybody wins and everybody is rowing in the same direction. If some things are broken, they’re always going to be broken. At the same time, if you set up the comp structure that way, it’s the easiest way to do it. Why doesn’t everybody compensate people based on results? It’s because it’s much harder to build the offer letter and it’s harder to manage.
You need good reporting, very objective metrics and KRAs.
It’s way harder. What most people do is they’re going to pay you an hourly fee or hourly wage or pay you a salary and you’re like, “They’re doing good work.” When you go behind them, you realize they were busy. It requires a higher level of detail and analytics to be able to put that in place and then you got to stick to it. Most people don’t do it because it’s hard.
There’s this concept also of deep work where you get into that flow state. There’ve been a lot of studies done in this where you need to be into something for 30 to 45 minutes to get into a real flow. I talked about flow work earlier. For me, flow work would be building a new program. I had one of my customers ask me to put together a recruiting and hiring program. I have some of the materials that are in my management class but I’d never put a course together for this. It’s another example of I took the order before I had the program and then I had to go build it but I had a deadline. I left my phone in my car. I left all of the distractions I could have and I scheduled the time.
I did the same thing as an executive. I always shallow tasks, emails, administrative work, paperwork and signatures. Also, reviewing and approving things. I would always try to fill up 2/3 of my schedule every week with deep work. To me, that was being around people, in meetings with people, learning about the business, understanding and trying to understand what was in their way of getting better results. That was deeper work where I thought more I got to use my brain. What would happen is all of those shallow tasks I would either not do. I would delegate it, pawn it off to someone else or save it until my Saturday mornings. I always worked Saturday mornings. I would go to the office for four hours. That was my shallow task day.
If it was something I had to do and all of the stuff I mentioned, I did it on Saturday mornings because there were no employees in the office. I wasn’t robbing myself of time with the people I needed to be with. I didn’t expect them to work a Saturday morning. I was an executive. I was paid and I had to get that stuff done. I would catch up on all of that. Monday morning is when most people do that. Monday morning was a bad time for me to do shallow tasks all day because I had employees in the office.
I could go understand what was going on, listen and spend time where I needed to spend time. I’m a big fan of scheduling as much of the flow work as you can right into your calendar. It’s no different than you setting important meetings first thing in the day. You get your workout done. You get your ass to work. You don’t have time to do bullshit work to keep busy. You’re involved in important meetings right out of the gate.
I’m usually on a phone call as soon as the day starts in the office. Right after the gym, a little time with the kids, get ready for work, 1 or 2 phone calls and you’re in the meetings and rolling. You always feel like you’re behind on email because you’re not letting it dictate your day. I remember how you get good at not allowing busyness to rule you. What I will tell you is it’s a constant struggle. There are a few ways you can do it. There are courses and plans out there that you can use or you can talk to resources. I can remember calls with Ian in 2007, 2008 and 2009. I talked to him about how he did things. His goal was to clean his email out by 4:00 Friday.
Every week, he would get in there and pound through it. He wanted to be left with less than ten emails that he would read and be done with on Friday. How do you set up your Monday? You do your agenda for the next week by the close of the week prior. What I use is I usually do Sunday mornings. I’m pretty clear I set a vision for my week and I think about it like, “What do I want to talk about on my Monday morning call? What do I want to accomplish this week?” I had to do two different things. I think about what’s the mission and vision for the week and what I want to accomplish this week. I boil it down to somewhere between 3 and 8 things or somewhere small. It’s about four core things that you can get done in your week.
I learned something in my twenties. It’s called the Rapid Planning Method. What R stands for is Results-oriented. P stands for Purpose-driven and M is Massive Action Plan. In prepping for this conversation, I thought about it like, “What do I use?” I haven’t thought about this in many years. I used the analogy earlier with STAR in an interview. You need to think about what am I spending my time on. Does it meet the R? Does it meet the P? Does it meet the M? If it doesn’t, it gets crossed off or you focus on something that does move the needle. It’s a constant calibration. If you look around my office, I got papers everywhere and crap I need to do but I push those things to the side and try to stay focused on moving forward.
Another thing you can do is to force yourself to quit and have hard stops.
You’re better at this than me.
Kids help me do it. When I say kids, your kids still haven’t got to the age yet. When your kids get to sports age, you’re going to be a lot better at this. For me, it was when I started coaching youth sports because the young kids have shitty times when they get to the fields. I’d have to leave the office at 4:00. That was foreign to me before the kids. When they were young, I could work until 8:00, 9:00 or 10:00 at night, sometimes I’d come home.
I could work as long as I wanted because I wasn’t rushing to get home to do anything. I looked at it as this a time for me to make money. What I never realized was by not having a hard stop and being able to stay in an office until 9:00 or 10:00 at night, I was inefficient with my time. I was sloppy with my time. I let people take advantage of my time in a lot of different ways.
Once you started coaching sports and I had to leave at 4:00, it was amazing. I thought I was going to become less productive. I became more. I quit doing a bunch of bullshit. You cut some people. You’re only doing seventeen closings a month and wondering what everyone is so busy doing. It’s very funny that the same thing happened to us. We went to a whole new staffing model in 2015 because our customer service was struggling. Before we were asking people to carry 90 or 100 customers at a time that was in some form of their house getting built. We were doing okay but not good enough.
We nearly doubled our employee count, Frank. People were carrying 40 to 45 customers in their backlog. At the end of the month, everyone was still running around with their hair on fire. We looked at our overtime expenses. After doubling our employees, Frankie, you would think overtime would go to zero. Instead, overtime expenses went up and we were like, “What the hell? The whole point of us doing this was for better service and better quality of life.” The answer to it was people had shitty terrible habits.
They were used to working until 6:00 or 7:00 at night and they expanded their work to keep fitting that old schedule. They were used to leaving at 6:00 so they kept leaving at 6:00. We had to get to the point where we said, “No overtime. You’re all out at 5:00. We’re logging you out. You can’t log in to your computer. Figure it out.” People were all pissed at first, “You can’t do this.” It was like, “We can do this. We doubled our payroll so that you didn’t have to do this.” We kicked them out then finally, after a while, they were scheduled and they started getting more efficient. When you add people, they don’t get more efficient. They get less efficient than I’ve found.
We did something similar here. We had a department with five people in it and it didn’t run right. I asked a bunch of questions. I’m going to guess here because a lot of good management is gut, guess or best estimate based on what you know. I said, “I think I can run this department just as well with three people.” What we did is we very drastically reduced the staff by 2 out of 5. We got rid of 40% of the staff and we run better because we have fewer people getting through things. It’s working in such a way where that team is more efficient.
What we’re talking about in this society is busyness is an excuse but there’s a quote that I love. Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” There’s truth to this statement, because after all, the busier we are, the better we manage our time. Busy people always get more done in the day because they waste less time. It’s a dated quote at this point. We’ve used busyness as an excuse. If Benjamin Franklin had a second chance at this 200 years later, he might say productive people.
It’s the most productive person. They work a lot of hours and work hard but they’re productive for a reason. They’re organized and they produce things. Another thing is if you want your team to be efficient, you need to be efficient with your calendar. One thing I realized is I learned the wrong way. At GE, everyone stayed in the office until the corner office light went off and then we left. I can remember this feeling very strongly. I wanted the senior executive in our office to see my car when he went to the parking lot. I never wanted him to not see it. I would leave after him, even if I wasn’t getting a lot done.
In my 40s, I was asking myself, “Why was that senior executive in the office stay until 8:00 or 9:00 every night? He had a wife and kids. He was in his 50s. How inefficient was he or was he doing it because his manager stayed in the office until 8:00 or 9:00 and might make a phone call to him at 8:00 to see if he was still in there?” To me, that creates a very inefficient office. People are staying late because that’s part of the cultural norm. I was very fortunate to go to NVR where the executives there were about production.
They were about Bill, Paul, Ken Glass, Mark Rainer, Alma and Bob Henley. Everyone I mentioned was never in the office at 8:00 at night. A handful of them were gone at 4:00 every day but when they were there, they got shit done. None of them expected me to be in the office there. They expected me to get results. Paul Saville, the CEO of that company, valued results way more than hours worked. He was about, “Are you getting things produced?”
This is a cool story in my mid to high twenties. They brought in this executive from a different home builder. This different home builder was famous for the CEO calling it 10:00, 11:00 or 12:00 at night requiring people to still be at their desks. The company is good. They have good metrics but NVR is significantly better than them. We all giggle about this company because they’re egomaniacs but they’re not smart. Ken, whom Ian and I both look up to as a mentor, walked down the hall, saw this guy in his office at 6:30, turned his light off and said, “Go home.” It’s an awesome story. The message was this. “Get your stuff done during working hours and get the hell out of here.”
I had the same story. I called McCarley, who was with Ryan Holmes when I started. This was my second month. I’m like, “John, there’s no one here. It’s 6:00.” The whole office of McKlein is empty. I’m here trying to find some stuff to do. He is like, “Go home.” It’s not GE. No one cares if you’re there. You’ll probably catch some shit for sending emails at 6:00 or 7:00 at night. That was good modeling. NVR was an absolute meritocracy. They did it well. I paid for production. The bonuses were all based on results. Everything was based on driving results and not hours worked. I always loved that.
The last thing I’ll say, Frankie, is more people need to schedule white space into their calendars. I have two management programs wrapping up at the same time. When I wrap it up, I do a final one-on-one. I have twenty people trying to get on my calendar. I went and blocked off an hour and a half each of my afternoons because I like to go take a walk. I go out on the trail, walk, put my headphones in and make phone calls. That’s my white space-time to think. It’s during the middle of the day and that’s fine.
I went and booked it because I didn’t want anyone to double-book. I don’t want to lose that time because that thinking time always gets me into a flow state. I listen to podcasts. I call you sometimes. I call people I need to follow up on and do things with and I’m not distracted by anything. I’m not distracted by my TV, computer, email or phone. I schedule in white space where I can think. That helps me be more productive and think about how to make more money.
I’ll close it with two pretty interesting things. I do something similar to you. How do I force some peace into my day? I had a business coach. I worked with him a few years ago. We re-engaged him a couple of years ago. I have this sticky note on my desk and the sticky note says this. Number two says, “More coaching issues stuck. How can I help promotion for self?” The thing that’s upfront is to block my time for thinking and reading. I’ve had this note since 2019. It is probably the third copy of that note. What I do on Thursdays is I don’t come to the office.
I told the story to Ian where someone wants to sell me 135 houses and the only time I could get together with him was Thursday. I interrupted my schedule for that. My Thursday, I have three calls scheduled and it rotates. All I do is walk my neighborhood, talk on the phone and drink coffee. I’m outside making phone calls. That’s my time to think, reflect and get on the phone. It’s similar to what Ian does.
It’s my time for me to be able to process. If there’s something I need to chew on, I’m like, “I’m going to deal with that on Thursday because I don’t come into the office.” I’ve got a nice enough backyard. I sit in a chair underneath the tree. Sometimes, I leave my phone in the house. I bring a notepad with me and work on things because I have to do that. I’ve got tons of phone calls, emails and texts. I force it. Speaking of forcing it, you don’t know how I’m doing at 1:50, Ian.
What are you doing?
I’m going to see Air all by myself.
That’s awesome. You’re going to put it in there. There’s nothing cooler than being an old man who goes to the movies by himself in the middle of the day.
My calendar says the following from 1:30 to 4:00, “Frank-Air.”
It’s going to be you in there with four octogenarians.
I can holy hope.
There’s hardly anyone in there. It’s fantastic. Turn your phone off and get some popcorn. It’s a good little way to spend your afternoon.
I cannot wait.
That is amazing. That’s one of the beauties of having your business. You work a lot of hours and you’re busy but you can go do some of those things and get out. When I was working for a Fortune 500 company, I would’ve never thought to leave in the middle of the afternoon and walk for 1 hour or 1.5 hours and make phone calls. I was at my desk. I was staying busy. I wanted to be seen as working hard.
Now, I protect that time with my life like your Thursdays. I’m irritated when I don’t have 1 day or 2 of blank space-time where I can go do some of that. John Wooden’s famous quote on this is, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” John Wooden was a great Purdue University graduate. Everyone remembers and knows him. It’s a good way for us to finish this one off. I don’t know if this was a productive use of our time, Frankie or we’re keeping from being idle but I sure as hell did enjoy it.Never mistake activity for achievement. Click To Tweet
I felt very busy during this hour, Ian.
You felt this was busy work for you. This was not making you a lot of money for your business. Hopefully, our next episode does that instead. If you are new to this show and you liked this, smash that subscribe button wherever you tune in to us. We sure would appreciate it if you give us a five-star review with some nice comments. Frankie and I know who the hell you are. Frankie, stay busy.
Good talk, Ian.