Productivity is a top-of-mind issues for many of us. But “productivity” is also a rather nebulous concept and tends to be more easily said than done. But there’s someone who knows how to really cut through the crap to help you become more efficient and effective in work and life.
On this episode of Talk Shop, master speaker and business productivity expert Hugh Culver is here to help us get real about productivity. We talk about how the way we think and speak about productivity can hold us back, practical steps for cutting through the noise of everyday life, the baggage we’re toting around when it comes to our to-do lists and the ways we speak about productivity, and everything in between.
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Lauren: Hello everyone, and welcome to Talk Shop, the place where you can learn from industry experts how to use your words better in business and in life, with others and with yourself.
Have you ever noticed that many of us use really negative terms to talk about productivity or time management or our to-do lists? That is exactly what we are going to address today. I am so excited to bring to you Hugh Culver as our very special guest for this subject. Hugh Culver is an internationally renowned speaker, author and coach, who helps business owners and leaders grow their success through the power of productivity. A self-described “recovering overachiever”, Hugh co-founded the first company to offer private flights to the South Pole, has built and partnered in five businesses, is one of only 50 certified speaking professionals in Canada, and continues to seek adventures with his wife and daughters.
Thank you, Hugh, so much, for being here today. How are you doing? How is the temperature in Kelowna?
Hugh: Lauren, I’m doing great. Here’s a view of outside. So it’s actually, we’ve got sun and in Canada-language, it’s, I don’t know, plus eight or something like that today, so I’m doing great.
Lauren: Delightful. Delightful. And I’m sure that you’re out, you’re doing your running, you’re working on those ultramarathons. Is it an ultramarathon that you’re going for this year?
Hugh: I’m doing endurance paddling, actually, of all things. So, I’m racing in something called a surf ski and also a [riggers 00:01:38]. So, I’ll be doing endurance paddling. Yep. We’re starting up already.
Lauren: Nice. You are braver and hardier than I. My hat is off to you. So, Hugh, you are a communicator extraordinaire. You speak, you write, you talk, you do it all. A big part of communication is the information that we decide to take in. It’s not just everything that we spew out to the world, it’s also the information that we take in. But, being able to filter out what we choose to bring into our lives from the noise is incredibly difficult, and we have to filter it because there is too much out there. Why is it so hard for us to tune out and turn off the noise?
Hugh: That’s an interesting question, because of course, what most people want to know is, how to stop the noise. So let’s look at that question first. The basic concept I always build off of is the fact that we’re very slow to change. Our body and the way that our body responds to stimulus is very slow to change, and in fact, some people would argue that we’re really a 10,000-year-old model that’s slowly evolving. But meanwhile, of course, everything’s changed all around us.
One of the things that hasn’t changed is our pain, pleasure type, attraction and being repelled, right? So, we’re attracted to pleasure, we’re repelled from pain. So, when something pops up, like if I have alerts that are red buttons on my phone, naturally I go, “What is that?” Which is why so many people now are saying, which is what I did, is, “Turn all those alerts off.” So, we are naturally going to respond to something that looks like an alert, and advertisers have known this for millennia. Now what’s happening is we have extremely educated, even PhD level people working at Facebook and working at Google and working at Instagram and working at, you know, Pinterest, and their sole purpose, their sole job is to get us to pay attention. We are up against a very powerful force that we need to deal with, because it’s only going to become even more powerful.
Lauren: For sure. It’s pernicious, too. That’s the other thing. It’s coming from everywhere.
Lauren: It feels like we are being shouted at from every single direction. A point that you brought up that is really good, is that the people who are intentionally creating these products for us, their focus is on keeping us on alert and on making us feel as though every time we log into that app or we look at that notification that somehow that’s adding to our life or making us more productive. When, in reality, it’s often not. So knowing that it’s really hard to tune this out … I mean, for people like me, I am a complete information junkie. It feels like the more I have, the more I want. What advice do you have for information junkies like me, that can help us turn off the unhelpful noise and distraction? I’ve obliterated all notifications. What else is there? What’s the next step?
Hugh: So the simple solution, which is hard to create, is you go to get the information you want, you don’t let it come to you. So when I need information, I go … If I want to know what’s going on in the way of blogging, the world of blogging, I actually go to my Feedly. So, I use Feedly every day because it aggregates all these blogs that I have chosen to watch. That’s a simple example of where I’m going to reach out for the information that I need.
But, secondly, what we need to do is we need to protect our time. So when we’re trying to get stuff done, we need to have a discipline. The way I teach it is I use boundaries, but we need to have some kind of a discipline where we protect time. So on one hand, I’ve got time allocated for a project, which, when I’m working on that, I do not allow other information to come in. Even something as simple as this: When I’m writing a blog post, I don’t spell check, and I don’t go and look up a reference. Because, if I do, I’m lost.
Secondly, when I do want information, like for example I’m going to edit my blog post, or I want to see what other bloggers are doing, I go and I reach out for that information. That’s very difficult, to have that black and white distinction, but that’s how I think of it. On one hand, when I’m working on something, I don’t want any distractions, and when I do want it, I reach out and I go get it myself.
Lauren: That is an outstanding tip, actually. I really like that, right down to not doing the research when you’re doing the writing, too. Because research is deadly. You open it up and it’s so interesting that you just get stuck-
Lauren: … right into it.
Hugh: Totally, totally. And, Lauren, with all of these rules, the reality is we’re going to break them, but, like when you’re developing any kind of a habit, then just go back to what your rule was. So, maybe Tuesday was a complete disaster, but on Wednesday, go back to that routine. The more we keep returning to disciplines that we know that work, the more successful that we’re going to be.
The easiest knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Oh my gosh, it’s just impossible. I’m running crazy. It’s here and straight back,” or whatever the metaphor is, and to excuse your behavior. But if you’re in a kind of role where performance is actually being rewarded, like, you know, it’s how I earn my income, or it’s how my boss gives me a raise or whatever, we need to have different disciplines than we had even five years ago.
Lauren: So it’s a matter of trying different disciplines, and figuring out what works, as well?
Lauren: I’ve found that the apps like Strict Workflow, it’s a Pomodoro timer app-
Laure: … that blocks specific websites has been very helpful, especially when it’s in one of those days where I find it really difficult to stay on task.
Hugh: Right, very good.
Lauren: That thing does something for me. I don’t need it all the time, but that is one of those discipline areas. There’s also, in addition to listening to the noise, there is a push to contribute to the noise. Again, thinking of all of your work within productivity, it’s made to feel as though in order to be productive we have to be seen to be productive and to be producing.
Hugh: Right. Right.
Lauren: [crosstalk 00:08:13] emails, and there’s social media posts, and pushing out the videos. Hey presto. Do you have any advice for figuring out which of these activities, which of these things that could so easily be busy work, are actually productive, versus, which are actually just additional forms of distraction?
Hugh: This is really interesting, because I just actually got off the phone, before this call, with a colleague of mine. Basically what he does is he does some really in-depth analytics for companies online to show them what’s actually working. He says, for the most part what people think is working is not really working at all. In terms of pushing traffic to a website or getting conversions of customers, you know, getting conversions of followers to customers.
For example, he has clients that think they got to be all over Pinterest, or they got to be all over Instagram. What they’re looking at is they’re looking at the numbers on that site, but what they usually don’t do is they don’t look at the numbers, relating that number on Instagram to number of dollars in their bank, or products sold, or people joining their list. So, I think we’ve got to be very careful to not go with the temptation of trying to be everywhere. This is difficult, but we need to get very selective.
So, for example, for me, I go to Twitter once a day. I have a system, my company actually produces my posts for me from my blog, so that’s nice, that’s taken care of. But as far as following up with people, reading news feed, I go once a day. That’s my discipline. I’ll go in the middle of the day. So I’m very selective of where I put that information, and the reason is because I also am able, again, because of my company, I can actually measure the results.
My message to people is this, is that, first of all, there’s no way you could do a good job on three social media platforms, unless you’re just doing it for pleasure. So if you’re thinking of this as a business promotion, you need to select no more than two, and then what you need to do is you need to go there once, maybe twice a day, but that’s all. You need to get really good at understanding how those two work, and you need to be able to have some simple measure of what it’s actually doing for you. Because you’re just fooling yourself thinking that you’re going to do a great job on lots of different social media platforms. Those platforms are making it even more complicated to be successful on them and more difficult. We need to get very selective, and we need to measure the results.
Lauren: Yeah. I mean, to all you viewers and listeners out there, this is a totally unplanned plug, but the service that Hugh offers, SOS, I believe that you’re rebranding it this year. What’s the new-
Hugh: We are, yep. So, in another month it’ll be called Blogworks.
Lauren: Okay. So Blogworks. I’ve been a subscriber to this service for a while. It is outstanding. I do produce the blogs, I do need people to see them, but what I’ve also found was creating the posts for social media, for me, was resulting in what I like to call communication fatigue.
Lauren: I was tired of having to create more messages and get it out to more people, and then, when I was on these platforms, my interest was low and whatever work I did on them felt really inauthentic, to use an overused word.
Hugh: Right, right.
Lauren: So, Blogworks, it is outstanding, and strongly recommended. Now, I mentioned in the introduction that a lot of our own ideas and thoughts about productivity are related to how we communicate about it, how we talk to other people about it and how we talk to ourselves about it. So, what sort of notions and ideas around time and productivity are floating out there today? What’s really prevalent, that you’re hearing about the idea of productivity?
Hugh: Interesting. Yes, well, certainly we’ve gone through a big transition. So, there was the world of David Allen, with Get Things Done, the world of Stephen Covey with First Things First, and those were fairly mechanical techniques. Even further back, there was a lot of companies like Fred Pryor and companies like that that were teaching us, and I went through those courses in the 1980s, that were teaching us to open up our leather-bound journal, take out our mechanical pencil and start to actually plan our day. We’re a long way from that now, because Lauren, you know that for most people, it doesn’t matter what they plan on their day, by 11 o’clock in the morning, it’s completely changed.
What I’m seeing as a trend is for a combination of that. It sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but it actually makes sense. The combination is that my world, what I do, is I plan for Friday. What do I need to get done by Friday? I plan for every day based on that, but I allow for the fact it’s going to go out the window. So what most people do is they overestimate how much they can get done in a day and they underestimate how much they can get done in a year.
Hugh: Right? So you need to stop overestimating how much you’re going to get done in a day and get realistic. Typically for me, a day has, obviously, my appointments, but then it has maybe three or four other things. But what I’ve got is I’ve got this holding zone that I can go and dip into when I want to, and that’s my plan for the week. So, the idea is that when I finish the day, I want to feel satisfied that I actually was able to cross things off. So it’s a compromise. Yes, I am planning, but I’m allowing for the fact that someone just actually walked into my office and spent 45 minutes here and that was completely unplanned. So it’s a compromise between the two.
Lauren: So, instead of telling ourselves, and this is a bit of advice that I’ve come across quite a bit, instead of saying, you know, “This time is absolutely sacred, don’t let anything interrupt it,” you say, “This is what I intend to do with the understanding that an interruption might happen. If it happens, try to minimize it, but don’t beat yourself up, necessarily.”
Hugh: Yes, I agree with that. That’s true. I also do think, though, that you can protect your time. You’ll hear a lot of people, now, in the online world, that are saying, “I’m most productive when I sit at a coffee shop.” Well, what they’ve done is they’ve protected the time. Right? They’ve gone to the coffee shop. They’ve had 90 minutes protected time. So, I do believe you should do that. In particular, what I think everybody needs to do, is they need to understand what time of the day is best to protect. For me, before 10:30 in the morning is the most productive time of my day. So I want to make sure that if I’m going to protect any time it’s going to be that time of the day.
The idea is, that’s when I’m doing difficult phone calls, that’s when I’m setting up new arrangements, that’s when I’m reaching out to people I haven’t reached out to before, I’m following up with clients. It’s actually money-making time. Then, after 10:30, I may have appointments, I may have calls, I may have blocked out other time, but for me, before 10:30 in the morning is the most precious time for me to create a boundary. That’s when I’m not on social media, I’m not checking my email, but I’m getting work done.
Lauren: Yep. For sure. I think it’s also important to acknowledge that that time, that productive time, and a creative time, too, is going to vary from person to person.
Lauren: It’s, once again, thinking of the lists and what we hear about productivity online, there’s, “One of the habits of the most productive people is that they wake up really early and they do all their work here.” I personally find that I hit my creative stride in the afternoon, and that, actually, oddly enough, before 10:30, that’s when I have to get the annoying stuff done.
Lauren: The [crosstalk 00:15:51] can come later.
Hugh: See, that’s really interesting. So, there you go. There’s a window in the afternoon when you need to protect that time and look forward to it, right? So you can say, “Okay, the morning was full of distractions, but I’m really looking forward to this window in the afternoon, because that’s when I’m going to get this writing project done, this proposal sent out.” Yeah. Perfect. That’s perfect.
Lauren: You’ve written about, as well, and just verifying the term, I like this term very much. “Bias to action”.
Lauren: What is bias to action and what sort of mental chatter is that creating for ourselves?
Hugh: Years ago, I was going to visit a client. I walked in the office and the receptionist, who I also worked with, her name is Candace, had this great tan. So I asked her about her trip. She just returned from Mexico or somewhere like that. I think it was Mexico, San Jose area. She said, “It was a great trip.” Then, I asked her, “What was it like just before you left for Mexico?” She described to me how she was so productive. So, she had the bias for action. She was looking at things from the point of view of, “I must get this done today. I’m not going to spend a lot of time thinking about it. I’m not going to worry so much about their reaction, and I’m not going to craft big, long, lofty emails. I’m going to say, ‘Thank you very much, here it is, that’s your stuff.'”
So her bias to action was that she had a sense of urgency. The opposite of bias to action is I continue to make lists. “Oh, I better get to that, I better get to that.” Today’s a good example. I had this great plan for the day.
Lauren: Show us your list.
Hugh: Oh, no. Well. This is embarrassing, because my list on the left is one, two, three, four, five, six, I had six things and two of them, one was going to yoga and one’s going to the gym. So, I’ve already gone to the gym. Yoga’s coming up. I really only had four things on the list, but all of this has come up in the meantime. That’s fine. That’s pushed aside, that’s going to go into Evernote where I plan for it. I’m not trying to get these done. This is what I’m going to get done.
My bias for action, though, is also, during the day, if something comes up it’s just going to take a minute, I just do it. I send an email. I have a team of eight people working for me, and sometimes I just send an email. I don’t need to list it, I don’t need to plan for it. My bias for action is get stuff done, but if it’s going to take more than a few minutes, don’t go off down that rabbit trial, park it, put it on your planning document, right?
But sometimes, we need to just get it done, you know? For example, I just met someone at the gym this morning, I said, “I got this great person person I want you to meet,” and he said, “That sounds great.” As soon as I went to the changing room, I just went and sent the email. I’m done. I don’t need to put it on a list or a post-it note.
Lauren: It’s out of your mind. It’s not [crosstalk 00:18:44]
Hugh: Totally. I feel completely complete. Right? So there’s a balance there. But I think that a day like today, I’ve got all this stuff coming up, yeah, there’s all these things that I’m pushing off, so I have to plan for these things because each one of these has got some complexity, but there’s about 10 other things that happen during the day that I just sent an email to, I send a text to, I’m done. That’s bias for action.
Lauren: That’s great. Another thing that you’ve brought up recently in one of your End of 2017 blog posts was within your process, and one of those actions is spending time thinking. Spending time in the contemplative space. Now, I used to have what I think is a bias to action gone wrong, that when I was planning I would say, “Okay, got to plan, got to get it done and it’s going to be done fast,” and I’d create these plans. I’d stuff the proverbial 10 lbs of sausage into a 5 lb time casing and then wonder why it all went wrong.
Hugh: Right. Right.
Lauren: [crosstalk 00:19:46] I’ve gone back to that giant, analog, leather with a mechanical pencil planner, and I’ve blocked off about an hour a week to just sit down, run over what’s going on, think about what I’m doing, really think about it, and also figure out how it worked for me last week. I missed one of those little personal coffee dates, as I call them, and my following week was so much more difficult.
Lauren: So, in terms of creating this contemplative space, what does the time to think do for our inner monologue — I like to call it the inner monologue — about our own productivity, as well as about our actual productivity?
Hugh: Right. And just to be clear, time to think could also be having a conversation with a colleague or a friend, where you’re actually exploring new ideas. But I think, Lauren, the way that I would characterize it is that in our brain we have this very much A plus B equals C type mentality, which is, “Because that’s on my list I need to get it done, I need to parcel aside the time.” It’s that kind of thinking.
But we have this capacity to think completely differently, which is A plus B does not have to equal C. So in other words, because it’s on my list, I could also delete it. I could also give it to someone who actually only charges $11 an hour and they could do it. That would be awesome. So, we have this capacity to think that way, but the mechanical side of our thinking, it makes us feel like, “Oh my gosh, because I put it on a list it’s now this burden for me to execute on.” Time to think allows you to be thinking, “Okay, let’s get realistic here. I got X number of days I’m going to be able to work this year,” and if you think just simply conservatively in terms of the weeks of the year and the number of days in the year, you’ve got maybe 180 days, and then if you say, “Well, actually, I’ve got all these engagements with my clients and then there’s travel time,” or whatever your business is, “And now I’m down to 90 days.”
You know, once you go down with the math, you got to realize you don’t have a lot of time to be productive. That’s where when you sit back, you can ask yourself smart questions around, “How am I going to get all this done? How can I create even more capacity?” In other words, bringing people into my team. That’s some of the best things I’ve ever done, is just bring people into my team who are better at doing what I need to get done. The other thing is I maybe need to start thinking about what to get off my plate. What to get off my plate so that I can actually attract what I’m trying to attract.
Lauren: What are we telling ourselves with our lists?
Hugh: Oh, man. A list can feel like baggage. Right? That list could include everything from cleaning out the garage to get rid of old clothes to start a new business venture to deal with my spending habits. Right? The problem with lists, Lauren, is that first of all, they’re unprioritized. So in other words, my “clean out my closet” is right beside “earn six figures”. Doesn’t make any sense.
Secondly, with a list, they’re usually not written the right way. They’re not written as action statements. So in answer to your question, I would say what we’re saying to our list is, “I’ve got baggage.” But a list is actually designed to be something that’s an action tool. It’s designed to, “Hey, I’m going on a trip, I make a list. This is exciting. It’s going to get me on the trip.” But when it comes to business, I think for a lot of people, the list becomes baggage, because, “Oh, oh yeah, I committed to this, I committed to this.” It’s horrible. So they’re not prioritized. They’re poorly written. And for the most part, a lot of the people that I come in contact with, which is mostly bloggers that I’m speaking to — high level bloggers, as well — for a lot of people, they would do much better if they just started by saying, “What can I tick off my list?”
Hugh: “What is low-value but has somehow crept on my list and now it’s just clinging there because I haven’t made the effort to delete it.” That would be the first place to start, is, delete the old stuff and then write a better list.
Lauren: With actual action statements.
Lauren: “What I’m going to do.”
Lauren: It’s not, “Get fit”.
Lauren: It’s, “Work out DVD at 12:00 noon today.” That was on my list today.
Hugh: Totally. Yeah. Exactly. That’s a good example, right?
Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. Now, you are re-releasing a book this year. The book is Give Me a Break, and in that book you have advice like this, just a ton of wisdom and knowledge about productivity, actionable habits that people can establish to get them into a far more productive space. Why did you decide to re-release the book this year?
Hugh: Okay. It’s a good question, actually-
Lauren: Why now? Why now?
Hugh: Well, we were just having that conversation a few minutes ago. Because the book’s been out for six years, it’s done really well, the sales have been fantastic, and I just feel like now, what I’d love to do, is I’m going to reach out to my readers and I want to hear success stories and I want to include them in the book. So that’s why. I love that idea of give the book a bit of a refresh, probably a new cover, but also include real stories of what people have been doing.
Lauren: That sounds great to me. I will be enthusiastically reading it. When can we expect it?
Hugh: That’s going to be in two months.
Lauren: Excellent. Oh, excellent. So, if you could distill your wisdom and productivity into one pithy little tweet-size nugget, because you created a company helping people do this, what would that be? Give me this really on a silver platter, Hugh.
Hugh: Yeah. Here’s what I would say, is. Nobody cares what you did yesterday. All that matters is what you’re doing today.
Lauren: Love it. There’s your tweetable, folks. Listeners and viewers. Get that out there. That’s a-
Hugh: And that’s for us to think about, too, right? Included in that is, “I shouldn’t care what I did yesterday. All that matters is, what am I doing today?”
Lauren: I’m going to make sure that that tweet is in the shownotes and the description down below. Now, Hugh, for people to find more of you, to find Blogworks, to find the latest edition of your book, to find out how they can bring you in to help their companies out, where can we find you?
Hugh: Thank you, Lauren. Just go right to my website. So, HughCulver, H-U-G-H-C-U-L-V-E-R, dot com, and everything’s there. There’s videos as well, so there’s a lot of videos on how I do my time management.
Lauren: There’s a ton a content. Everybody, make sure you subscribe to Hugh’s blog. It is one of the highest value blogs I’ve come across. Really wonderful.
Hugh: Thank you.
Lauren: Always incredible. So we’ll make sure that that link to Hugh’s website is in the shownotes below. And of course, if you have liked this interview, if you have found this helpful, make sure you like it, that you subscribe to this channel so you can stay up to date on all of the upcoming interviews, and head over to LaurenSergy.com, subscribe for my newsletter. That is where you can stay on top of everything that I’m producing, as well as get to know some more information that I only share with my subscribers. Hugh, thank you so much for being here with us, and-
Hugh: Thanks for the invitation. That was fun. Thanks, Lauren.
Lauren: It was fun. It’s always fun speaking to you. And we’ll see everyone else out there on the next Talk Shop. Bye.