Learning Productivity From A World Top 20 Poker Player (Turned Performance Coach)

Nov 4, 2019
Chris Sparks Quote

At the beginning of each year, everyone resolves to make this one their best yet. But soon after making best laid plans, things start falling apart. Old habits, environments and limiting beliefs set in. Before you know it you’re back where you started, tyres spinning in the mud.For me, 2019 was the year to finally form a consistent writing habit. But after a solid month in January, effort slowly turned into excuses. The writing hours went down, and I saw a dark pattern unfolding. Having procrastinated with revision for countless school exams, I knew I was all too prone to this loop continuing. If I wanted to break free, I had to change how I approached my work.

The single best investment you can ever make is in yourself. Over 2018 summer, a friend had described coaching as “personal development on steroids”. I wanted to see how true that was.

Over the next few months, I worked with an Executive Coach on improving leadership. First looking at my idea of a strong leader in others, and then turning to leading myself. We’d created success by reframing a handful of limiting beliefs. For example, my coach reduced the internal pressure I placed on myself by reframing building a consistent writing habit: It doesn’t marry me to the craft for life. It’s a skill that can be doubled down on, or dropped entirely if it no longer serves.

With my coach’s help, I began to learn what it takes to lead. But I had a far more pressing problem: How to make myself effective. My current writing output didn’t match up to my goals, and I was simply wasting too much time during the day. I certainly couldn’t build a team without having my own systems in check first! I knew it was time for a change.

If my last coach came down to leadership, this one was laser-focused on productivity. I started working with Chris Sparks of  The Forcing Function in January 2019. Chris is a former world top 20 online poker player turned peak performance coach. During our time together he helped me double my productivity, radically revamp my creative process, and make big leaps forward in with my business, relationships and life. It was one of the best investments I’ve made to date!

What follows is a deep dive into everything I learned over 3 months working with Chris: How my mindset, business, and decision-making process all shifted, and how you can apply what I learned too. If you’re doing creative work, trying to reach peak performance, or are struggling to achieve your goals and want to make less mistakes by thinking in probabilities... I’d say there's an 80% likelihood you will learn something valuable below. Key takeaways are summed up at the bottom of each section.

Disclaimer: Chris did not pay or prompt me to write this. Turning what I’ve learned into prose preserves as much as possible, and lets me easily apply the lessons in the future. And by sharing it publicly, you can benefit too.

Thinking In Probability

Before diving in, let’s lay out some fundamentals. Namely: how to define productivity. Because at the start of this year, my definition was completely off.

I came into my first session with Chris guns blazing, ready to change the world: “On a productivity scale of 1 to 10, I want to be hitting more 10/10 days than ever before!!”

First mistake. Chris smoothly corrected my definition:

“Ben, productivity isn’t about hitting 10/10’s every day. It’s about raising the floor to a consistent 7."
Casino Royale Poker Game
Credit: Casino Royale

Imagine you’re sitting between James Bond and yet another nefarious villain he’ll most likely defeat. You’re playing Poker, a game that revolves around odds, chance and probability. 

Let’s say you’re dealt a great hand: two Kings. What’s your next decision? Do you immediately go “all in” on your turn, betting your entire stack on winning the hand, hoping to leave with gold and glory?

Of course not.

Because here’s the thing: Expecting a 10/10 performance from your hand, even if you think it’s a winner, is the equivalent of expecting productivity levels of 10/10 every day. Poker pros know this is unrealistic. So what do they do instead? They simply seek strong performance over time. They’re happy with consistent 7/10s.

The same principle applies to productivity. So how can we start to raise the floor? Make it harder to access the things that get in our way.

Some common low-hanging fruit: Have a bad habit of using social media when you shouldn't? Crackbook creates a momentary delay between loading the social site, and content appearing. I’ve found that a small delay is often all I need to close the site, silence the urge to procrastinate and continue my work. Or if you need a heavier solution, Freedom will block all internet access during specific periods. Put the cookie jar further away, and you’ll reach for it less often.

As a former poker pro, Chris's brain is hard-wired to make decisions by thinking in probabilities. Seeing this, we soon realised I needed to correct much of my phrasing which was said with 100% certainty. Consider the following:

“I’m completely sure this will work.”
“This must be the best option.”
“It’s true. I read it in a book."

These statements are absolutes. There’s no room for the (very real) possibility that things won’t play out as expected, or that your thinking is flawed.

Now instead of using absolutes, let’s revisit these statements through the lens of probability:

“I’m 60% sure this solution will work.”
“I’m 75% confident this is the best possible choice we have right now.
“I read it in a book which claims it’s true, however it’s not a primary source so is just an interpretation."

See the difference? "This is not THE best option objectively, but the best option we have right now.”

Realising that I was brandishing statements with absolute certainty was a big wake-up call. It led me to one of my favourite words of 2019: Fallibility. Accepting that I might be wrong makes it easier to correct my course when plans go astray, and even avoid mistakes altogether. How? Because once you have an estimate on the probability of an outcome, you can take actions to increase or decrease the likelihood of that outcome happening.

This leads us to the key principle: Always try to make mistakes in simulation and not reality. Learning through experience is always far more costly.

Let’s take an example. You have a busy week coming up, and you’re trying to craft your ideal work environment for a strong, 8/10 productive day. In the first simulation, what happens if a message pops up on your phone? Now you’re distracted, and the 8/10 just became a 7.5. Or what if an urgent client email comes in and throws off your morning? Now you’re at a 6. 

Time to re-simulate. This time, your phone is switched off in another room, and you’ve turned off desktop email notifications. The distractions are dealt with, and the odds of you hitting 8/10 just went up. Re-simulations = better conditions = better results. Anticipate what could go wrong ahead of time, and ask: What needs to be changed to improve the odds? Iterate on your plans until they’re “reality-proof”. Then, finally, act.

The pain we feel from making mistakes can be awful. But arguably the biggest pain comes from not even trying in the first place. The pain of regret. No-one ever wants to be left saying those two dreaded words: “I wish…" Minimizing regret can occur with large-scale planning. When reviewing your annual goals, you can ask yourself: "What’s the one thing that if I DIDN’T do this year, I’d regret not attempting?”

It can be a daily practice too. If you’re not sure whether you’ll regret missing a project, ask yourself: "Of these options, what would I not regret doing even if it failed? If it turned out to be the complete wrong decision, or didn’t have the outcome I hoped for, could I still say it was time well spent?"

Thinking in probability helps us spot mistakes and avoid regret. We can make decisions knowing it’s not the “right” choice, simply the best option we have right now.

Thinking In Probability: Key Takeaways

1. Raise the floor. Make bad habits harder.

2. Swap absolutes for odds.

3. Make mistakes in simulations instead of reality.

4. Estimating an outcome’s probability lets you take steps to increasing or reducing it’s likelihood.

Space To Think: Saying No

Accepting my fallibility helped me better plan for setbacks. But what about when things go well? When was the last time this happened to you: A small side-project suddenly takes off, and now eats up more and more of your time? Success often snowballs, and projects can quickly demand more resources than planned.

This contains an inconvenient truth: getting success in areas you didn’t want or anticipate can be a form of self-sabotage. The same conundrum arises for projects we do care deeply about. We simply haven’t given ourselves enough space to put resources behind when things go well. If we need a plan for failure, we also need a plan for success.

The rule of thumb here is to only work on projects you unconditionally want to snowball. So how do we differentiate what to double-down on from what to stop doing altogether?

In a world that likes to say “Yes, Yes, Yes!”, saying no to current commitments can be an uncomfortable conversation for many people, myself included. To overcome it, Chris had me review past weekly task lists with two questions: "What have I been avoiding? And what am I doing out of obligation?” 

Looking back at my to-do lists, I could see some project tasks that were consistently being pushed. It quickly became clear to me that these projects needed to shift in some way: Delegate, or drop altogether. What about when you’re evaluating new projects? Chris gave a good rule of thumb here too: Don’t pick something up unless you put something else down. Do more of the things that matter, and less of what doesn't.

Saying “no” helped me replace chaos with consistency. Simply put, it meant a better process.

Saying No: Key Takeaways

1. Plan for success AND failure.

2. To identify projects to drop or delegate: What am I avoiding / doing out of obligation?

3. To start a new project, drop an existing one.

Improving The Process

At the start of 2019, business was going well: My LinkedIn profile makeovers were consistently creating value for my happy clients. On paper, things looked great.

But inside my head, I had a big problem.

I lacked the component every legendary leader has: a grand vision for how these puzzle pieces fitted together. As I agonised over the long term plan, I began doubting myself:

“Am I actually doing the “best” action right now to achieve the big result I’m aiming for?”

In hindsight, I can’t help but laugh at how much this kept me up at night.

Chris’s reframe was swift and simple: move away from better outputs, and towards better inputs. Rather than worrying over outcomes, focus on the actions needed to get there.

This principle solved my clarity conundrum. The heavy expectation of picking the “correct” goal was lifted. I’d learned that big goals emerged from applying oneself repeatedly, not by sitting around pondering.

I applied this same idea to one of my life metrics: Writing. My exact response in Chris's pre-engagement questionnaire:

"I’m a writer. Writing compelling copy has been the anchor for my success in 2018, and is what I want to make the central ingredient of my success going forward. If we could only achieve one thing together, it would be to create a system that frees up more time for me to write at my peak state, while still enabling the other parts of my business to flourish.”

Having studied prolific writers and their processes, there’s one unsurprising thread that keeps coming up: They write almost every day. Writing every day for a few hours compounds immensely.

With that insight, my question became: "What system (and constraints) can I put in place that would enable me to write meaningful work every day?"

I started by raising the floor as discussed earlier. No phone or social media for those first two hours. I treat this time as sacred. Some days I don’t manage the full 2 hours, and others I find myself distracted. But slowly (and surely), I’m putting better reps in.

The biggest systemic change came from a belief Chris and I shared: of any single factor, our environment exerts the most influence over our behaviour. Where we are = who we are. My big project for 2019 is writing my first book (more details coming soon…), so my environment had to directly support that goal.

In the short time I’ve been here (since the start of May), making Bali the book's home base has had remarkable efficacy. There’s so little infrastructure here compared to the high-powered cities I’m used to. No skyscrapers, subways or shopping malls. Just silence. The empty space created something fresh and most welcome: abundant room to think. In Josh Waitzkin’s words:

“I cultivate empty space as a way of life for the creative process.”

The results were significant: In May I made more progress on the book than any other month previously. For me, this reinforced the importance of changing your context for creative projects. New environments, like a trip into the countryside or a secluded weekend away have the power to produce new paths of thought.

Chris helped cement other core writing principles: Maintain momentum (Enthusiasm for the book will never be stronger than at the early stages), be accountable to a schedule (e.g. Write a new chapter every two weeks), and cultivate a core group of people I respect who agree to give feedback along the way.

There were other shifts to my writing process when I gifted myself space and silence. Perhaps the biggest change came in doing online research. I had no idea how to capture what I was reading online effectively. Chris showed me where I was going wrong: I had conflated the two fundamental aspects of research into one task. Research in fact has two parts: discovery and consumption. Finding sources is one state of mind, but actually consuming it is another altogether.

Using this model, I now have time-slots dedicated to discovering new sources, and similarly allocate time for consuming them. By using Instapaper, all the articles are saved in one place and have a clear, consistent, ad-free formatting. I can also highlight and take notes on parts that stand out. Then with Readwise all my highlights are sent to Evernote, where they can be re-used in future projects as part of my "Personal Knowledge Management system" - taken from Tiago Forte’s excellent Building A Second Brain course which I completed (thanks to Chris). This all plays into the larger theme of inputs over outputs.

Up to this point, my research process had become structured instead of spontaneous. My environment was geared around creative work, and I was becoming more disciplined at writing for 2 hours daily. But what about all the other hours in the working day? How could I raise the odds of working on the right task at the right time? With another system.

The Process: Key Takeaways

1. Better process = Better inputs = Better outputs.

2. Environment matters. Where we are = What we do.

3. Split research into two parts: Discovery and Consumption.

Lightweight Systems

When I started working with Chris, I’d been self-employed for 4 months. Discipline wasn’t easy at first. I was juggling agency work with running a weekly podcast with starting to write a book. Focus was a myth.

I knew I could spend my time better. Why? I was planning each day on the day, rather than in advance. In my words (from the initial questionnaire again):

"One thing I’m hoping to get from our time together is a weekly planning (and reviewing) system that works. Ensuring that all foundational tasks get done. The goal is to wake up, and know what I need to do with no question whether it’s the thing I should be doing."

Solving this low-hanging fruit showed me the process’s power almost instantly. Before I share exactly what we implemented, let me explain the underlying principle.

To keep myself accountable when I started self-employment, I used Taylor Pearson’s time tracking system from his article: “Time Management Tips For Insanely Busy People.” That meant meticulously tracking how I intended to spend my time, how I actually used it, and how that matched up to my core success metrics. The theory is brilliant, and if you love the idea of quantified self Taylor’s system might be extremely useful. But for me, it turned my average weekend wind-down into this:

Time Management Tracking Example

Mindlessly filling out spreadsheets to calculate how effectively I’d spent my time ironically turned out to be an absolutely ineffective use of my time. The burden outweighed the value, and it slowly became a chore I resented.

The problem was, I had misdefined the utility provided by a system: They should be as lightweight as possible. A lightweight system extracts the maximum value from the minimum amount of effort.

Let’s apply that principle to weekly reviews and plans.

The Weekly Review: Lightweight Mode

A lightweight review meant scrapping the spreadsheet analysis. Instead, I answer four simple questions:

  1. What went well? 
  2. What didn’t go well?
  3. What did I learn?
  4. And how can I structure my day to follow through better?

This places less focus on rigid formatting, and more focus on action items that change behaviour. When I review my week, the underlying question is always: How can I test this learning right away? 

With the actionable review complete, it’s time to plan the week.

The Weekly Plan: Lightweight Mode

The first step to making weekly planning more lightweight is to cap the time you allocate for it. 30 minutes (45 max). Time spent beyond this point has diminishing returns. Then when you sit down on a Saturday or Sunday, here’s the exact seven-step process you can use: 

1. List all the potential tasks you could be doing next week. The entire list will rarely get allocated, which is good! You’re cutting the things that aren’t important.

2. Next, prioritise the tasks. I assign each task two values: A number (1-3) on how important I subjectively deem it to be, and a letter (A-D) based on expected value per hour (from Taylor’s article linked above). A = $10,000 p/h (unique tasks within my core skill set), through to D = $10 p/h (admin).

3. Now all tasks are ranked. Big objectives for the week will be 1A, all the way through to *those* kind of admin tasks at 3C / 3D.

This is the clever part. I had previously been writing infinite daily to-do lists which were never finished. Instead, why not only allocate tasks I can actually anticipate finishing?

4. Using 30 minute Pomodoro cycles, identify how many cycles your day has (working for 10 hours a day with no meetings / breaks gives you 20 cycles). Note: You don’t have to work in 30 minute chunks, but you do need to know how many hours you have in the day.

5. Estimate how long each task will take. Then, only allocate the total work amount based on how many cycles your day has! For example if you have 9 working hours (or 18, 30 minute cycles), don’t allocate more than 18 cycles worth of work into your plan. If you allocate too much work, you’re setting yourself up to feel behind every day instead of the way you should: like you’ve successfully accomplished what you set out to do.

6. Now fit your tasks into each of your working days. For this example, I’ll stick to the typical 5 days. Fill out your weekly plan, ideally including one of your top 5 weekly tasks each day to keep momentum & spread workload. I recommend the Intelligent Change Productivity Planner.

7. For any tasks that didn’t make the cut, capture them (I use Todoist for my task backlog). This frees up mental bandwidth that might be spent wondering if you’ve forgotten something.

Voila! Achievable plans for each day. I can move higher priority tasks (like client work) earlier in the week, and start my day by eating the frog, ticking off big client deliverables first. With practice, the whole planning process need not take more than 30 minutes. Keeping it lightweight allows for the very real possibility that plans will change. Maximum value, minimum effort.

Note: I’ve since added an extra first step: Cross-referencing tasks with my annual goals. This increases my odds of making progress on what’s actually important, and not just urgent.

Lightweight Systems: Key Takeaways

1. Extract maximum value from minimum effort.

2. Optimise weekly reviews for actions that can change behaviour.

3. Time spent planning has diminishing returns. Keep your system fluid and flexible.

Themed Work

I’m guessing you might be working on more than one project. A portfolio career. Hell, your side hustle might have a side hustle.

I’m the same. Podcaster, storyteller, writer AND ghostwriter: I have more hats than heads. There were weeks where I had client work to do, needed to create an episode for my podcast, Subject Matter and had book research on my plate - where should I start?

As listeners of Subject Matter will know, I’ve been living 2019 by a single overarching theme: Making 2019 THE year, and not A year. Finding The people. The product. The pursuits that push you forward. I told Chris how effective “The vs. A” had been in making 2019 my best yet. His reply: “So why don’t you theme your working days too?” 

Together we identified 3 thematic pillars:

1. Monetization (Executing client work & driving more business revenue).

2. Systematization (Making a better business machine).

3. Audience Growth (Longer term community building).

On Subject Matter Tom and I had already debated the 3 pillars that control your life: your home, your relationships and your work. The takeaway? If you’re making a big decision in one area (e.g. moving homes), then make sure the other two pillars are stable.

The same principle applied here. I moved forward on only one theme per day (two absolute max if there was overlap). This created closed containers around my portfolio career. Less switching context, and more consistently knowing exactly what I’m doing when sitting down to work.

Plus, the system was lightweight. All I had to do was group my tasks appropriately in my weekly plan, write the theme in my planner, and remember to live the day according to that theme:

Weekly Planner Example

Themed Work: Key Takeaways

1. Themed days create containers around your portfolio (equalling extra focus). 

2. To create focus, each day try to move forward on 1 theme (2 max) at any one time.

Real Recharging

For ambitious people, resting is just as important as action (although we might do a good job of convincing ourselves otherwise). Sprint, rest, learn, repeat.

I’ve wasted my fair share of time on social media. Every time, deep down I know it’s not fruitful. But time-wasting aside, it turns out there’s another darker consequence to this habit.

I learned from Chris that the problem with social media isn’t doing something that’s not moving you forward, it’s doing something that isn't recharging you. Rest is critical for anyone trying to accomplish anything of substance. Unfortunately, it takes precious brainpower to scroll through social's bottomless feeds. Rather than give your brain the time it needs to recharge, you’re stuck in a cognitive limbo: not making any progress and not preparing for a productive tomorrow.

So how could I curb this bad habit? Plan around the tendency. 

In the morning after I finish my 2 hour writing block (usually an energy-intensive activity), rather than risk relapsing into social media’s bottomless pit, I have a break to recharge. I’ll either work out or hit the sauna, topping my tank back up before the afternoon. The aforementioned Freedom and Crackbook came in handy here too, putting the pull of social further away.

More importantly, I had to rethink recharging’s role in reaching high performance. A lack of rest means you’ll make worse decisions when you actually are working. Recharging could no longer be something I did to let off steam, or wile away the hours. As crazy as it might first sound, resting is incredibly productive, and needs to be treated seriously.

This subtle reframe has helped me swap my scrolling for reading. I find myself with more energy, ideas, and far less wasted time.

Real Recharging: Key Takeaways

1. Resting is productive. Make your time away from work non-negotiable.

2. Social media is not restful or recharging you.

Harnessing Your Subconscious

If resting our brains is one half of high performance, then conscious thinking should be the other half too, right? Think again. Because the best creatives intentionally use their subconscious too.

There are too many layers to the subconscious to go into detail here, but in broad terms: it’s well-researched that creativity comes from our subconscious. The best creative workers rarely have just one golden idea. There are hundreds, if not thousands that don’t make the cut. After working with Chris, there has been a significant increase in the volume of insights I come up with. It came from putting a process in place to operationalise creativity.

Wielding the subconscious starts in the morning. For me, there is nothing quite so potent as a blank page. It can untie almost any mental knot I’m facing, and act as a canvas to solve wider problems. 

I’ve found that asking the right question is more than half the battle. So in the morning, I’ll journal to define exactly what problem I’m facing. The idea is to identify the precise questions that, if answered, would lead to a solution.

Then later, I completely unplug. My environment for this is a sauna and ice bath, which I typically head to after my morning writing, creating a double benefit alongside recharging. Any quiet environment (a long walk, flotation tank, or quiet garden) is perfect here. The key is no stimulus.

My go-to activity while in this environment is mindfulness meditation. Focusing on the breath. As thoughts arise, I try to keep myself focused on the questions I came in with.

Sometimes I’ll leave without an answer. But a remarkable percentage of the time (70%), a valuable train of thought surfaces that I can use later. The answer only appears because my mind is primed. I might not have been working on this problem, but my subconscious has.

The acclaimed mathematician Richard Hamming had a ritual called “Great Thoughts Time”:

“When I went to lunch Friday noon, I would only discuss great thoughts after that. By great thoughts I mean ones like: “What will be the role of computers in all of AT&T?'', “How will computers change science?”... I thought hard about where was my field going, where were the opportunities, and what were the important things to do.” 

By priming our minds to think big, we increase the odds of coming up with a truly big idea.

Whether it’s subconsciously coming up with the next billion-dollar breakthrough, or simply overcoming a hurdle in your own life, the central fact remains: We’re always context driven. Chris applies this framework to books, saying: 

“The real value in books is not what you learn, but the subtle alterations they produce in what you’re looking for.”

When I finished “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, I found myself more aware of my cognitive biases. After reading “Zero To One” by Peter Thiel I avidly viewed every business by its potential as a startup. With that in mind, you might be better off consuming the best 100 books repeatedly to prime your subconscious, rather than trying to complete the entire library. 

As with our process, we can increase the odds of acting correctly by changing our inputs. Average books? Average thoughts. But great books… you get the idea. The forcing function here is making you subconsciously aware of a concept, so you can act upon it. For Chris, subconscious action is the ultimate productivity litmus test. Can you make the correct decision without thinking about it

Harnessing Your Subconscious: Key Takeaways

1. Define the problem as precisely as possible. Better problems = better answers.

2. Find answers by totally unplugging. No screens or stimuli.

Identifying 10x Opportunities

Let me pause for a second. Submitting to the patient process of “inputs over outputs” is no silver bullet. It has a notable flaw. It requires you to shut yourself off from the outside world. Chris used the mental model of closed door vs. open door. Closing your office door lets you turn inward, and work faster. But opening the door once in a while lets you check if what you’re working on is still relevant. Or whether you could be working on something much more important altogether.

We can’t be “heads down” all the time. Too much trust in the process exposes us to leaving something valuable on the table. The process needs to be balanced with a system for getting our heads above the water to survey the wider landscape. This is where the 10x opportunities for growth are found.

To explain 10x thinking, let’s revisit themes. For each theme, I can choose a marginally better decision, or one that is 10x better:

  1. Monetization: Doing urgent but not important tasks (serving an existing client outside of your ideal audience), versus 10x: important but not urgent tasks (going after that ideal client).
  2. Systematization: Building processes to solve problems vs. 10x: Eliminating problems entirely.
  3. Audience Growth: Continue distributing Subject Matter episodes vs. 10x: Getting the show featured by heavy hitters.

The impact of effective 10x thinking speaks for itself. So how can we start priming our minds to identify more 10x opportunities?

Chris and I identified 3 steps.

1) The first and biggest thing for thinking 10x is a clear conviction and vision of where you want to be.

Not being confident of where you want to go can lead to self-sabotage. The weaker the conviction, the more likely it is that there are parts of your life you subconsciously don’t want. On the other hand, if you’re clear on what you’re optimising for, it’s possible to observe shortcuts towards that result. The underlying principle is simple: If I have a clear picture of what my vision looks like, I can identify 10x leaps that will get me there fastest.

Chris recommended setting a 1 year timeline for your vision. 12 months is far enough to shoot for things well out of reach, while keeping in touch with our current values and therefore not feeling abstract. Our vision should be big enough that even the process of chasing it is exciting. It’s the journey, not the destination that matters here.

10x breakthroughs might not appear consistently. But the key to progress is consistently tracking progress. Peter Drucker’s axiom of “What gets measured gets managed” is true for our loftiest goals. Measuring something makes it improve regardless of the goal associated. I had to digest this insight a few times before I understood how powerful it is. In Chris’s words:

“Never underestimate the power of a rising integer.”

Once you have conviction over your vision, how can you check you’re heading in the right direction?

2) Block out regular white space to reflect.

Evaluating our goals once a year is not frequent enough. It misses the very real possibility that old goals will decay, and new goals will rise.

This is why we need regular time to pause, ponder and question. To achieve this, Chris helped me begin monthly reviews. 

The monthly review is a systems check. Take a sweeping, birds-eye view of all areas you want to progress, and ask if you’re moving in the right direction. It’s an opportunity to step back and identify expansive leaps forward.

The core questions:

  1. At a high level, how did this month go across my major areas of focus (E.G. Mission, Wealth, Health, Relationships, and Performance)? 
  2. Did I hit my target for my input measures? (e.g. hours spent writing, podcast episodes published). Did I achieve my other monthly goals?
  3. Did I make progress towards my annual goals?
  4. Are these still goals I want to achieve this year?
  5. What experiments can I run next month to improve upon this one?

So far I’ve mentioned annual goals, monthly reviews, and weekly reviews / plans. If this feels intimidating, remember: The end goal of goals is using them to generate actions. Clearer “North Stars” = Clearer direction. Use the goals and reviews to show you which actions you need to take (or questions you need to answer), then get after it.

The third and final strategy to identify 10x opportunities:

3) Have regular conversations with friends about your big goals.

There will always be assumptions. You’re at the center of your universe. You’re blind to (most of) your biases. But people on the outside have a helpful level of naivety. Unlike you, they won’t overthink things. They’ll simply tell you what they think you should do. The right question at the right time could reveal you’ve been taking the wrong path all along.

Identifying 10x Opportunities: Key Takeaways

1. Clear vision = Possible to identify shortcuts to achieving it.

2. Make your vision so exciting that you’d attempt it even if you knew you’d fail.

3. Block out regular white space time to reflect.

4. Have regular conversations with friends about your big goals. 

(10x Bonus): Thinking Bigger Through Travel

There is one final technique to thinking 10x. I’ve already mentioned how new environments can lead to new breakthroughs. Let’s apply that principle to its extreme. Before moving to Bali, I’d never traveled to Asia. Making up nearly 60% of the world’s population, Asia will arguably be the most influential continent over our collective future very soon. For me, trying to understand it properly is a must.

It’s admittedly harder to be productive when travelling. But as we’ve seen, productivity isn’t always the answer. We need to open the door once in a while. The monthly review is a systems check, and travel is a chance to break the system.

Chris helped me frame how to travel productively:

  1. Once a quarter, travel to a new country / city for 7-10 days. Full immersion over short stay. Minimum 1 week. 
  2. The goal here is to step back from your environment, and reflect on the bigger picture. We need the space this reflection requires.
  3. By pausing all our systems and routines, we can evaluate which are still useful. “If I could start from scratch, what would I pick up again?"

Travelling somewhere lets us understand new peoples and cultures, but it also helps us understand ourselves better too.

Productive Travel: Key Takeaways

1. Travel allows us to break systems and routines.

2. Full immersion over short stay. Seek understanding.

What I Could Have Done Better

There’s plenty I didn’t get right during my time with Chris. I made mistakes, fell into bad habits, and generally didn’t make as much progress as I perhaps could have. In other words, I was human. But that’s not a problem; everything is a process, remember? That said, there were 3 areas that need considerable improvement: delegation, monthly reviews, and removing artificial checkpoints.

1. Delegation

This was the big one. As I’ve discussed earlier in the “Saying No” section, success comes from doing less, not more. Delegation is the difference.

I made some small strides with my delegation, by:

But this is just the start. There's a long way to go, and a lot to let go too. 

Executive Chef at the White House plated up food
Executive Chef at the White House plates up food.

Chris expected delegation to be more of a focus, and we tackled it early on. To frame delegation, he shared the Executive Chef Analogy. An Executive Chef is responsible for the kitchen’s daily running. They could do everything from hiring staff to ensuring high-quality dishes are delivered to diners. But what they don’t do... is everything at once. They break the tasks down. Their team works on parts they can’t cover. They delegate.  

We can use a similar process when outsourcing our tasks. Identify the things only you can do, and drop everything else.

Executive Chef Outsourcing:

  1. Determine which consistent tasks are eating up your time. I use Toggl to track how I spend my hours.
  2. Identify low hanging fruit. Start with administrative tasks that don’t need creative output. Low value but necessary tasks lend themselves well to process creation (E.G. “Follow these steps and do X, and you’ll get outcome Y”.)
  3. Break those tasks down into steps. Ideally each step should take an hour or less (so it’s clearly manageable).
  4. Within the task, identify low value steps you can extract yourself from.
  5. Document a process for each low value step. Screen capture recordings are ideal for creating “recipes” here, and Loom is a great tool for making them quickly.
  6. Turn your processes into a job description.
  7. Outsource the task to someone overseas.

Chris also framed another way to drop unnecessary work by making me aware of a potential disconnect between the service I thought I needed to provide, and what the client actually expected. We can identify these mismatches by asking ourselves:  

  1. What am I providing that clients are NOT using or getting value from?
  2. What tasks wouldn’t need to happen if I stopped doing them completely? 

 Ensure you're meeting the customer’s expectations and not yours.

For me, taking delegation seriously means realising that customers want to buy the hole in the wall, and not the drill itself. People are buying the result my business provides, rather than my personal process.

I enable executives and founders to effectively communicate online. People are buying the end product itself (“I can comfortably share my insights and message now!”), rather than the ability to work with specifically me. If my team can provide the same level of service to my C-Level clients, then everyone’s happy.

This left me to decide: Am I a writer? Or am I a writing business? The former couples my time to my income. If the writer stops writing, growth grinds to a halt. But the latter is decoupled. Managing a writing business might mean having less control at first, but it means my business can scale without my input. In my case, having a writing business (and team) is the path to scale.

It’s worth saying that there will always be things that you feel like you need to do. The power play is realising what it’s okay to let go of. I’m still working on removing this mental bottleneck. Letting go has historically been hard for me, as I question whether someone else can deliver to the same standard. I’ve realised that with the right talented, creative people, quality doesn’t need to compromise.

Finally, outsourcing was powerfully reframed to me recently: Outsourcing’s real value isn’t to make us more money. It’s to buy us more time. Take our Podcast, Subject Matter. Every episode is edited by our brilliant audio editor, Julio. That process saves us 2-3 hours of editing time, for less than $50. If you value your time at over $20 an hour, that’s a bargain. 

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

2. Monthly Reviews

I’ve been prone to falling into old habits. At times, the monthly reviews have felt like another chore. Inputting the time spent on key skills, measuring habits: it was dangerously familiar to the dreaded Sunday spreadsheets.

The problem was, reviewing my month became a chore because it deviated from its core purpose: using goals to generate actions. Each big goal should be a North Star to focus efforts. Measuring progress is never the end outcome. It should always be followed by a second question: What action can I now take to move this goal forward?

I’d been missing that second, crucial question. Since then, I’ve optimised my monthly reviews around generating actions. The takeaway: Don’t let form overtake function. Formal reviews are the process to get the big questions you need. If you have them, answer them with actions.

3. Eliminating Artificial Checkpoints

Chris pointed out a recurring pattern where I was building artificial checkpoints instead of going straight to a solution. For example: Trying to better manage a difficult client with an automated reminder system (artificial checkpoint), instead of replacing them completely with a 10x better client (solution). 

Having a clear conviction where I’m going, regularly blocking out time to reflect, and talking to friends about my big goals lets me evaluate whether this problem is even worth solving anymore. 

Peter Thiel offers an even more extreme version of this solution by posing the question: “How could you get your 10 year goals done in 12 months?” This immense act of compression forces us to strip away everything but the bare essentials that will move our big goals forward. Thiel’s point is that’s probably what we should be doing anyway.

What I Could Have Done Better: Key Takeaways

1. Treat your outsourcing like an Executive Chef. Don’t try to do everything.

2. Reviews are there to give you questions and actions. Don’t deviate from their purpose. 

3. Avoid artificial checkpoints for problems, and go straight to the solution.

Conclusion: Moving Forward

Productivity Score
Productivity = Consistent 7/10s, not shooting for 10's all the time.

Working with Chris was an overwhelming success. The big theme that emerged from my time with him: Productivity isn’t hitting 10/10 every day. It’s raising the floor to a consistent 7/10 using the right systems, habits and inputs.

How can you use what I learned to be more consistently productive?

1. Think in probabilities, not absolutes. Being fallible and simulating mistakes lets us decrease the likelihood we’ll make errors in real life. How much certainty are you putting behind your arguments? Are you allowing a margin for error? Be careful. In Chris’s words: "All of life is Poker: Making decisions with incomplete information.”

2. More No’s. Less projects = more focus on what matters. If you’re feeling stretched, ask yourself: What have I been avoiding or doing out of obligation? Delegate it, or drop it altogether.

3. Inputs over outputs. Actions first, outcomes second. Focusing on my writing input allowed me to create more quality work in 2019 than ever before. Which inputs are you going to track? What progress do you need to measure?

4. Lightweight systems. Extract maximum value from minimum effort. For me, it was making the weekly review & plan effective. But what systems are you overcomplicating? Where can you make them fluid and flexible?

5. Theme your work. Create closed containers around your portfolio split. Only moving forward on 1 theme each day means less switching context, and more focus. 

6. Recharge (properly). Resting is seriously productive, so schedule time to unplug. If you’re feeling constantly drained, how much time are you spending on screens? When can you swap staring at your phone for something more nourishing?

7. Identify 10x opportunities. Those huge leaps forward are out there. How can you find them? Have a clear conviction and vision of where you want to be. Block out regular white space to reflect. Finally, speak to your friends about your big goals. If you’re still struggling to find them, are you thinking big enough?

As always, thoughts without actions are meaningless. So now, what questions will YOU ask yourself, and which actions can you follow through with to improve your productivity?


Thanks for reading. What did you learn? I’d love to hear from you. Let me know what you think directly, or on Twitter (@benbradbury_).

If you’re interested in working with Chris, I recommend taking his Performance Assessment to discover your own opportunities for growth. You can also reach him at chris@theforcingfunction.com

Thanks to Adrien Behn, Brett Cotten, Barbara Bradbury and Chris Sparks for reading drafts of this piece.