Mike Vardy is a productivity expert best known as host of the Productivityist Podcast. He is a coach and consultant for top professionals on the topics of time management, goal setting, work optimization and more. Mike’s work has been covered by Lifehacker, Fast Company, Success, and The Huffington Post. Let’s hear more from him in this episode of Productivity Masterminds.
- Productivity equation. Productivity = Intention + Attention. Mike defines productivity as an interplay between Intention and attention: what is your intention and how are you going to pay attention to it? If you have intention with no attention, it’s powerless. The problem a lot of people have is that they have attention with no intention, so it’s aimless
- Slowing down: The only way you can figure out what your intentions should be is by slowing down and becoming more self-aware. This will yield greater results than just hustling away.
- Day theming: Instead of managing every minute of your day and overly focusing on quantitative data, i.e. trying to check off as many boxes as possible, Mike uses the framework of ‘day theming’. Every day of the week has a theme, e.g. Mondays are for planning and at the end of the day he assesses if he focused most of his day on that specific theme.
- No one-size fits all: You need to have a framework in place but there’s not one system where if you don’t follow it, then you’re not doing it right. Try and experiment with different frameworks and approaches and see what works for you.
Juan: Can you give us a little bit of context about how you got here career-wise? What’s your story?
Mike: So, back when I was just working a day job, I was working at Costco for a long period of time, I started to learn how to balance my time because I was working in one area of the warehouse and I was in charge of another area of the warehouse, so I had to really be good at kind of understanding the amount of time I had available to me as well as the amount of energy I had available to me too, and different types of businesses. So, eventually I left Costco, I was there for over a decade and I ultimately decided that I wanted to start exploring a comedy career. I was starting to explore that kind of stuff. And what happened was, is that understanding of time management and personal productivity came into play. And long story short, what happened was, is by using all those tools, I became more obsessed with productivity. So, I started to study the David Allen’s, the Steven Covey’s, all of the modern contemporaries in the space, and then ultimately I ended up doing a productivity parody site called ‘Eventualism’, so I was making fun of the genre for a long period of time. And then I did a podcast, so I’ve been podcasting for about 10 years now. And I did a episode with a bunch of different, like Seth Godin and all those guys and brought David Allen on the show. And David Allen was, you know, the father of getting things done, the creator of Getting Things Done, the GTD methodology. And he said, ‘you know, we want to get you to maybe write for the Getting Things Done blog,’ even though I was making fun, like being a satirist. And what happened was I eventually became the very thing I was parodying. So I became a product – I went from being a productivity parodist or satirist to now a productivity strategist and even a philosopher, to a certain extent. So, that’s been a long journey, it’s been about a 10 year journey.
You know, it’s funny, the people that I talk to look up to him now. Now, you know, I’m kind of in their peer category, which is kind of neat.
Juan: Sure. That’s amazing. It’s super funny, you actually started this from, it sounds like an academic approach first, like studying productivity, but actually out of necessity, if listening back to the early part of your story, it was out of necessity, you were balancing a lot of projects, then started doing the parody, then realized that you actually, by doing the parody you probably had to consume a lot of the content to even realize what to make fun of and how the industry actually works. And next thing you know, you’re actually an expert in the field because you’ve actually gone through and had all these conversations, talked to so many people. Now you’re a productivity expert, you’re running on multiple brands with both your personal brand and then the Time Crafting brand Productivityist. What is it about time that you know that most don’t? You certainly understand how to prioritize tasks, how to turn down opportunities. How do you think about time in general?
Mike: So you know, having come from a comedy background, I used to look everything through a comedic lens. It’d just kind of like that Jerry Seinfeld bit in his movie ‘comedian’ where he says he goes into a bathroom on an airplane and then he sees the razor disposal unit instead of thinking, ‘oh well, you know, someone just has-they forgot to change their blade, the blade was dull,’ he’s thinking ‘who’s shaving so much that they’re going through blades on a plane?’ I kind of look at everything through a time management or productivity lens now and, I think that there’s an element of personal productivity and time management that is timeless. If you look back at even a hundred years ago, Arnold Bennett writing the book ‘How To Live On 24 hours A Day,’ those lessons still apply today. And then you go back to things like stoicism and you know, like they were distracted back then. They talked about focus. So, you know, I think that for me, what I’ve discovered over my years of studying this is that the way time management works hasn’t really changed. Sure, some of the technology showed up and the tools are there, but the tools will only take you so far. You need to have a framework in place and we do have more control over our time than we think we do, I mean things like confirmation bias and over-choice and all of these things present themselves. But, if you take a step back and slow down for a second, you really get some perspective. And I think the thing I know about time management that- people that study it know, but that I’ve really embraced, is that
In order to really manage your time well, it’s about intention and attention. So, what is your intention and how are you going to pay attention to it? And the only way you can figure that out is counter-intuitively slowing down.
It’s funny, I have this timer device and I’ve actually put my themed days, so I’m not measuring like very specific activities. I’m measuring like ‘am I spending most of Wednesday doing audio work because that’s the daily theme? Am I spending most of Friday doing deep work?’ So, I’m not getting super fine quantitative data, I’m getting broader data, like ‘did I spend most of Friday doing?’
Juan: You’re holding yourself accountable. That’s a top performer. You’re holding yourself accountable to whether or not you’re actually doing the things that whenever you were slowing down and taking the time to plan out your week, are you actually doing that or are you just letting the hustle and bustle of every urgent email that lands in your inbox take control over your time?
If you try to manage every little bit of minutia, you ended up being very quantitative, which means you try to check off as many boxes as possible, but instead you should take a step back and go ‘do I even need to check off all of these boxes? Could someone else help me?‘
So, I think the funny thing is with personal productivity and time management and you know, basically intention management and attention management what you need to do is, is oddly enough, slow down, become self-aware, do things like journaling, which I think is a hugely undervalued element of productivity because you get to see how you, not just what you did on the day by looking at the calendar, but how you felt, whether your emotions got in the way or got the better of you or whether you embrace them and they pushed you forward. I think that we need to spend more time and invest more time on that kind of thing than trying to check off as many boxes as possible, because that’s not really a human approach and really ultimately, that’s what we all are, we’re human beings.
Juan: Yeah, and you know wow, really, really great stuff that you’re sharing here, Mike. I think that’s something that really spreads across industries and disciplines. As technology gets better and as more tools pop up, we really get into like the shiny object syndrome of, ‘well, what’s the better tool for project management? What’s the better tool for communication? What’s a better tool for…’ and you know, do you think the Romans had trello? Do you think Alexander the Great was sending messages on slack, like they figured it out somehow and so it just goes to show a lot of the principles still stand true and I love your approach of it’s about being intentional, it’s about controlling your attention, it’s about slowing down and planning out what it is that you’re even doing with your time, as opposed to just trying to find the next tool that helps you do things faster. It’s like, should you even be doing the thing actually, and if you could just delete things from your to-do list, you’re going to be able to spend more time and be more productive essentially by doing less!
Mike: Yeah, and I think the danger is that we often by theming my time, that’s an element of time crafting I now have, you want to put yourself in a position where you have sensible defaults in place. So for example, if you don’t do something today, the natural default is to say, ‘well, I’ll do it tomorrow,’ but for me, because I have like audio day is Wednesday, if I don’t get all my audio done today, the natural default for all the audio goes to the following Wednesday. Now, sure, there might be a couple of things that need to be done before that, but it’s not all or nothing. If you put these in place because you’ve got this part of your brain that is very, very primitive, right, it’s the shiny object one, it’s the one that wants to, and then there’s the part that’s got the higher reasoning, the prefrontal cortex. You need to give that prefrontal cortex enough ammunition so that it can combat that primitive part of your brain has been there forever. So, doing things like theming your days, working by modality to say, ‘hey, you know what?’
Not fighting your body clock like, so many people out there say, ‘well, I guess I better be a morning person because morning people are most productive.’ I’m a night owl. You catch me first thing in the morning and I am doing all the low-energy stuff.
All the low-hanging fruit, because later in the day, that’s when I’m better at doing the creative, the heavy lifting stuff. So, there’s no one size fits all, but you need to have some kind of framework in place because frameworks foster freedom, tools don’t, frameworks do.
Juan: That’s amazing. Mike, what is the best place to start getting information about these frameworks? How have you learned that? Is it a lot of reading? Is it through personal experiences, is it experimenting with different frameworks?
Mike: All of that.
Juan: How do you find what works for you? All of it. All of that, and then coming obsessed with the topic in general, right? It’s like if you just believe enough in that this stuff works and that time management can be optimized, you’ll be able to find the solution. It’s not just one book.
Mike: Well, what’s funny is that the term ‘Productivityist’ is was a Portmanteau of productivity and enthusiasts. So, I was really into it. I was like a hobbyist and then I became more of a specialist, which means I knew all of the different- like I knew getting things done and I knew the Eisenhower Matrix and I mean I know all those, but then I became a strategist because now I have my own methodology that I teach, right? Which, I’ve drawn inspiration from other areas clearly, but things like, you know, theming your time, making journaling a real clear part of your practice, I think those things are not maybe not uniquely relevant, you know, parts of time crafting, but they certainly are part of it in a grander sense.
And the thing is, is I don’t believe that there’s one system where if you don’t follow it, then you’re not doing it right.
I don’t like that idea of ‘hey, you’re not doing a review every week, so therefore you’re doing it wrong,’ or ‘you’re not using this matrix every time you make a decision, so you’re doing it wrong.’ I mean for what I teach is look, if you want a different theme every day of the week, that’s going to help. If you only want one theme, one that’s still going to help. If you want a journal in the morning versus evening, like I think that you can, you have to figure out what works and that takes, like you said, experimentation, reading. The reading I’ve done has more or less supported the fact that we need to have some system that has an element of timelessness to it because time has not really changed all that much. Sure, what we do with that time and what occupies that time has changed, but time really hasn’t really sped up all that much, at least not that a human being can sense over the millennia, right? So, I think that it’s important to say, ‘hey, this works for me, this doesn’t,’ and being able to put that framework together and customize it for yourself. I mean like we were saying, I use the Timeular one way, somebody else might use it in another. People were using paper planners again, there’s a real renaissance with paper planners over digital ones. Why? Because the problem with being in a digital platform is that you’re always connected, not necessarily to yourself either. Whereas a paper planner, it’s not going to ping you. It’s not going to give you a notification. It’s not going to crash on you. You’re going to look at it and go, you’re better connecting with what matters to you.
So ultimately what you want to do with any kind of approach to time management, productivity and all this stuff is you want to be able to define your day, funnel your focus, and ultimately make every moment matter.
Not every minute matter, but every moment matter because you’ve never heard of a minute of this occasion. You’ve heard of momentous occasions because moments are qualitative, minutes or quantitative. You need to be able to marry those two together, which is why I think time management, task management are two different things, I think intention management and attention management.
Once you marry intention and attention, once you marry time and task, that’s personal productivity.
Juan: Fire, fire content, Mike. That’s amazing. I love that framework. Just the way you think about time is, I think, the way really any top performer that is trying to achieve that is this relentless pursuit of excellence in any discipline, music, sports, you know, fitness, whatever it is. You kind of in the early stages have to give yourself some grace as you dropped the ball on things and anchor your identity to the fact that I do care about productivity. I am a fit person. I do eat healthy. The moment that you are like a little bit on the fence and you dropped the ball three times or five times in, you immediately pull back and you’re like, ‘oh, I’m not a musician. I don’t do fitness.’ And then you just stop going to the gym. What you’re saying is a bit of grace of like there is no perfect framework, you basically just have to become obsessed with these truths and principles that stand the test of time. It’s nothing new. It’s not, ‘I’m not trying to sell you this new tool or app that you download’ and if you just internalize that and you start building out those daily habits over time, then I guess you get to your point which is you’re actually batching out time daily and you’re optimizing and now you’re able to tweak much, much, much more granularly. But, it all has to start with you giving yourself grace at the beginning to dropping the ball sometimes and being okay and auto-defining yourself to note ‘but I do care about productivity, I do care about making the best of my time.’
Mike: Well, and that’s why I call it ‘time crafting’ because a craftsperson never really stops trying to get better. Someone who wants to get better at their craft are always fine tuning, but they’re using their hands. I mean there’s a difference between assembly and craft, right? You know what I mean? And it’s always going to be evolving, right? So I think that the great thing is you can add bits and pieces. If you’re going to be a golfer, if you want to learn how to golf, and I don’t know how to golf. Oddly enough, I wrote a book called ‘the front nine,’ in which I use golf as a metaphor. I’m a terrible golfer, bad, bad metaphor for me, but the point is, is that you’re not going to be able. I mean, most people say, ‘oh, if I get this tool, it’ll do it for me,’ but the best golfer could have terrible clubs and beat the worst golfer with the best clubs because it’s about craft. And it takes time. I mean, you see people as they spend more time, they get better at it, and maybe not necessarily better in terms of faster, but they understand, ‘hey, well maybe I don’t need to do this, that I can go around this corner rather than trying to do all this stuff.’ And I think that the interesting thing you mentioned about top performers is that there’s almost two types. There’s the ones that go 150 miles per hour all the time. And the quote, I guess you could say ‘hustle.’ And then there’s the ones that go that go deep and they do fewer things, but they do them incredibly, incredibly well. I don’t like the term ‘hustle’ because hustle implies that you’re, always going like, it’s just constant. I prefer the term ‘lively,’ like be lively in everything that you do because that’s sustainable. I don’t think hustle is sustainable, and I think that you want to be able to have a framework in place that is sustainable.
That’s why when I talk about time crafting, it’s the idea of it being simple, flexible and durable. I don’t say it’s easy, because it’s a mindset shift. What I talk about is often like a shock to the system, it’s a shocking of the system.
But it’s simple because if you think about it, most people are already theming their time already. Like you probably have a day where you do laundry. Right? And when you do laundry, you’re probably doing housework. And oddly enough, I can say to people, ‘so when you do laundry,’ ‘oh, I did it Saturday when I do housework inside.’ ‘So what you’re saying is Saturday is like kind of like your household day.’ ‘Yeah.’ Yeah, you’re already doing theming to a certain extent, right? And it’s flexible because you can move things around. And it’s durable because it can stand the test of time, like you will always have some form of household chores to do. You will always have planning to do, which is another one of my theme days. You can approach it without feeling overwhelmed with the tools and the minutia because it gets you keyed in on those intentions that you have and then the only thing you need to put in place is, ‘okay, I intend on writing a book, how am I going to pay attention to that?’
Because if you have intention with no attention, it’s powerless. The problem a lot of people have is they have attention with no intention, so it’s aimless. They’re just doing things for the sake of doing things.
Juan: Mike, thank you so much for sharing this knowledge with us. This is amazing. This is perfect, perfect, perfect knowledge. Something that’s very applicable, I think for all of us, no matter the industry, really. You’re doing a lot of things right now online, what’s the best place for people to stay in touch with what you’re doing and follow up on your career?
Mike: So, I put together a link for you guys and if you go to PM podcast, so productivityist.com/pmpodcast, you’ll be able to grab a bunch of stuff. This is a lot of stuff like, you know, I mean people are gonna have to go back and listen to this, go ‘what? What the what?’ Again, I shocked the system a little bit. So, you can go back and all the stuff I talked about and there’s some freebie stuff in there and that and, and all my social stuff is there. So, just go to productivityist.com/pmpodcast and it’ll be all there. We are rebranding as Time Crafting right now we’re in the throes of doing that, so it’ll just redirect to there eventually. But productivityist.com/pmpodcast is where you should go.
Juan: Can you spell productivityist, is it productivity-i-s-t, right?
Mike: You got it. You got it. Yeah.
Juan: Okay. Productivityist.com. Perfect. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Mike: Thanks for having me!