In this week’s installment of the #ProductivityGiants series, we talk to Scott Berkun about his daily routines, favorite productivity methods, and the creative ways in which he releases stress.
First, a little background on Scott – he’s the bestselling author of seven books, including The Myths of Innovation, Confessions of a Public Speaker, and The Year Without Pants. He is commissioned for talks that center around creativity, culture, business, and many other topics.
Aside from speaking and writing about creativity, Scott has some innovations to his name as well, including managing internet product development at Microsoft. Read on for the full interview:
What does the first 90 minutes of your day look like?
My working day is divided roughly into two-hour blocks. I start with 20-30 minutes of light work and catching up. I’ll handle simple emails that have been waiting, reviewing any drafts I wrote the night before or reading the news. Then I’ll pick a work project, which could be a blog post, a chapter of a book I’m writing or a new presentation I’m working on. When I run out of intellectual gas, usually about two hours in, it’s off to the gym to let my mind incubate and relax and my body to take focus.
What’s your number one productivity/time-saving tip?
Turn everything off. Self-inflicted distractions are ridiculous, yet that’s how most people trash their time and energy. Generally, I have all notifications off, except for things that truly are worthy enough to interrupt me – like close friends, promised work availability, or an emergency.
Any favorite tools?
I like my axe. There are few things more therapeutic then stepping away from the computer, going outside and channeling all my frustration, tension and stress into the sheer violence of splitting helpless logs of wood. So satisfying, and it keeps me warm too. You look at a fire differently the more you had to do to start it.
Do you have a pre-bed/nightly routine?
I used to struggle with insomnia. Going to the gym nearly every day has solved that for me. My body just had more energy it needed to spend and unless I spent it my body wouldn’t relax. I stopped fighting my body, given how sedentary modern life is, seemed fair. Now me and my body are both happy. Yay! I often read or listen to podcasts before I go to bed. Even with a good book, I’ll slowly feel myself tiring and turn it off (I read mostly Kindle books on an iPad mini).
How often do you check your inbox?
A few times a day. It depends on what projects I’m working on. Same for Slack.
#1 Email tip?
Rules are your best friend. Anything from anyone you don’t know personally should never end up competing for attention with messages from those that do.
What’s the biggest hindrance to your productivity? How do you combat it?
I don’t think of it that way. There is no hindrance. It’s not like there is a chain on my leg or a boulder in my path. The clearer my goal is, and the more dedicated I am to it, the easier productivity becomes. When I don’t feel productive it’s nearly always because I have too many simultaneous goals. If I have the maturity to prioritize them, cut some goals that have proven to be unrealistic so I can focus on others, productivity ensues. It happens naturally.
When you lose focus, what do you do to regain it?
I don’t think the mind is a slave. If I’m not connecting with a project, and I’ve planned well, I can put it aside and work on something else. Our subconscious minds do much of their work when we are not directly working on that project. Therefore having different projects in different states of completion is an asset. No matter how much I *don’t* want to work on X, there is a Y or Z I can shift to and put energy into… and when I lose focus or get frustrated on Y, then perhaps I’m ready to return to X. But this isn’t multitasking – I’m not jumping between things. I will stick it out for 20 minutes or more of staring at mostly a blank page as sometimes there is value in the fight.
What have you learned from your failures?
The most interesting failures are the more recent ones. Old failures can become myths to yourself and you get stuck in them. Here’s one: My most recent book, The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity, has the best reviews of any of my 7 books. But it had a terrible launch. I didn’t have a real marketing plan for it or the support set up for how to promote it. I had to relearn a basic lesson I’d learned many books ago – writing the book is one thing, getting people excited about it is another. I suppose the meta-failure is that no matter how well you learned a lesson, sometimes you still end up making the same mistake again.
What bad advice do you hear often?
Anything that starts with: “The 5 secrets…”, “3 Killer tips”, “Extreme 10X improvement…” – hoping for that kind of instant transformation defies all logic and any awareness of why people who are good at things are good at them. Commitment and discipline are simple words that people dismiss, but if you have those things you won’t need to bother with secret killer extreme anythings. Advice only helps if you’re showing up, but most people seem to want the advice before they show up and to use consuming the advice as a replacement for showing up. Even with the best advice a person still has to decide to do the work instead of watching Netflix. No advice can eliminate that choice. No advice can make a person self-aware.
What book has changed your life and why?
Since 1994 I’ve read 30 to 40 books a year. I can’t just name one! However, I did write a summary of the most influential books I’ve read: http://scottberkun.com/2010/my-favorite-books/
The most worthwhile investment in time, money, or energy that you’ve made?
My relationship with my wife. It’s not even close. We’ve helped each other grow, learn and understand ourselves, and it’s that kind of self-awareness and partnership that provides for most things in life most people seek. Second place would go to my library card (and the books I’ve purchased), as books have changed my life more than any other kind of media. Third would be my decision to quit my career and become a writer. It opened my mind and soul to the world of ideas, and if I hadn’t made that choice you wouldn’t be asking me these questions now 🙂
What’s your definition of productivity?
The ability to produce work of high quality that solves important problems at a respectable pace.
In the last 5 years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
I used to love to argue and debate people. Now I find, most of the time, debate is boring. Debate is an act of will: it’s not about growing or exploring. I find it far more interesting to ask genuine questions to try and understand how people think and why they’ve come to the opinions, feelings, and conclusions they have about life. I’m a curious person. I’d rather learn something, or hear an interesting thought that I’ll ponder all day, then just crush someone in an argument. Victories in intellectual jousting rarely teaches you anything. In fact, it probably reinforces prejudices you don’t know you have.
What have you become better at saying no to?
I’ve become better at saying no to temptations that I’ve learned aren’t nearly as satisfying as they appear. It’s yet to happen that I regret reading a book instead of torturing myself with the wasteland of the infinite scroll on Facebook, Twitter or other media sources. “What is it I am really looking for?” is what I ask myself when I catch myself doing it, and that question almost always makes it easy to stop, as if I can name what that thing is I’m looking for there are always better ways to find it.
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