Episode 171

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For most people, especially the creative types that tend to inhabit the agency world, time management is a hodgepodge of post-it notes, paper to-do lists, and several online tools – all used haphazardly and resulting in missed deadlines, meetings and a sense of being overwhelmed.

I know for me time management has been a series of constant improvements. While I am 95% happy with the system I have today, I always wonder if I could get little more efficient. I remember when I was first starting out in agency life and had no sense of when to walk away from the to-do list. I felt this sense of obligation to stay until the work was done. My problem, everyone’s problem: the work is never done.

So, being productive when you need to be is an agency imperative. That’s why I was looking forward to talking to Jon Denn. Jon is a creative person and has also done a ton of neuroscience research to understand that—guess what—one size does not fit all when it comes to time management tools and strategies.

In this episode, I ask Jon to share insights from his research and provide some perspective. He is a huge proponent of testing or experimentation. So, you can take his basic framework—3 hours of your day broken into chunks that correspond basically with how much mental energy they require—and test it out. He suggests 90 minutes for deep thinking, but quickly acknowledges that 45 or 60 minutes might work best for you. What time of the day are you at your peak? Use that time for your deep thought projects.

Here’s some good news – there’s are reasons why we work at odd hours. I don’t adhere to a strict 9-5 schedule and neither do most agency owners I know. Jon’s time management framework is at once freeing and very focusing.

Jon is the Chief Thinking Officer of Drumbeat Productivity. His background includes serving as a Hotel Chain CEO. Jon ran an adaptive leadership program for 12 years, and is a publisher, entrepreneur, and has been a Vistage CEO Coach and Group Chair since 2014.

 

 

What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • How to do small tests to understand when and where your most productive time can be focused
  • How to take control the parts of your schedule that matter most
  • The difference between doing meetings and idea meetings, and how to manage both
  • Why dividing tasks into groups based on the mental energy they require is much more efficient than the traditional “buckets” of work, home, etc.
  • How dividing time into 90-minute (deep thought), 60-minute (complex communication), and 30-minute (quick to-do) blocks is so efficient
  • Why you shouldn’t force a fit with time management tools
  • How to find the time management tools and processes that work for you
  • Setting up office-wide “don’t distract me” hours, and then other times to just be social together

The Golden Nuggets:

“There are doing meetings and there are idea meetings. Doing meetings should be held in organized spaces. Idea meetings should be held in more playful, even messy spaces.” – Jon Denn Share on X “Don’t just jump headfirst into a new time management system. Do small tests. Add and adjust, and soon, you would have implemented a version that works for you.” – Jon Denn Share on X “A 3-hour productivity block is divided into 3 parts: 90 minutes for deep thought, 60 minutes for complex communication, and 30 minutes to knock out quick to-dos.” – Jon Denn Share on X “Finding a ‘third place’ that is not home and not the office has become an increasingly popular way to get undistracted time. Just leave your phone in the car!” – Jon Denn Share on X

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Ways to contact Jon Denn:

Speaker 1:

It doesn’t matter what kind of agency you run, traditional, digital, media buying, web dev, PR, whatever your focus, you still need to run a profitable business. That’s why Agency Management Institute started the Build a Better Agency Podcast a few years ago. We help agencies just like yours, grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody, welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. Happy to have you with us. Today’s topic is one that I know you struggle with because we all do, and it is around the whole issue of managing our day and managing our time and really getting the things done that are most important to get done. I learned early on in my career I used to stay super late at work. And it was because my inbox, which back then was a literal inbox, not a digital version, my inbox, I needed it to be empty. I was a little bit at the type A control freak in me, but I also wanted to demonstrate that I was doing a good job and I translated that to getting everything done.

And what I learned very early on was that no matter what I did, my inbox was never ever going to be empty. And then I had to find a different way to resolve my own comfort level around it, but also in more importantly, to figure out what had to get done and how do I prioritize and identify those. And I think for many agency owners, we are often trying to shove five pounds of work into a one pound day, and that’s challenging. And I did an episode, it was episode 130 called Juggling fireballs, feral cats and 10,000 deadlines. And I talked through, it was one of my solo casts, some of the tricks and tips that I use to get things done.

But I think for everybody, you have to have your own system. And if we don’t have a system, which is what I fear many agency owners have, we have a million different ways of doing to-do lists, we have multiple to-do lists, some of you are post-it note fins, whatever it is, when we don’t have a tried and true way of managing our day and really accomplishing the things that need to get accomplished. Then our day manages us, our team manages us, our clients manage us. And I think oftentimes when you are tired and you’re staying late and everybody else’s left and you’re thinking, what am I doing wrong, in many cases, that’s it, is that we have not taken control and ownership of our day or at least part of our day to get the high level priority things done. And so A, I would recommend you go back and you listen to episode 130 if you have not listened to that. I think we offered some practical advice. But B, I think this episode will also appeal to you in terms of solving that.

So Jon Denn is a guy who now runs a company called Drumbeat Productivity, but before he went out on his own, he was a CEO of a hotel chain, he was a Vistage coach and group leader and a publisher and entrepreneur. So he’s done a lot of things, but he’s done a lot of things where he was beholden to big teams of people and having to get a lot of things done. So what Jon says is what lean manufacturing is for the shop floor and what EOS or traction is for the back office, drumbeat is for the front of our mind. It’s a way for us to organize our thinking and our time and to really start to channel our energy into the right places at the right time of day.

And so he’s written this book called Drumbeat Productivity, which I think has some really interesting nuggets in it. You’re going to have to work to apply some of it, doesn’t take into account the craziness that is agency life. But I think there’s a lot of really good core nuggets here that we can take and refashion for ourselves to try and get a better control of our day. And so I’m excited to talk to Jon and to pick his brain about how we can be more productive in the same amount of time or ideally even less time. So you can actually spend more time doing the work that you love and even better doing things that aren’t related to work at all.

So with that, let’s welcome Jon to the show. All right. So with that, Jon, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Jon Denn:

Thank you so much for inviting me.

Drew McLellan:

So tell everybody a little bit more about how you got to a place where you decided this was a problem you should tackle. So without a doubt, time management and getting more out of your day and feeling at the end of the day like you accomplished something is got to be on most executives list of must haves and I think it’s something everybody struggles with. So how did you decide to tackle this problem?

Jon Denn:

Well, essentially I made lemonade out of lemon. So about 20, 25 years ago, I had a bout with chronic fatigue. And it was pretty serious, nobody could really figure out what it was. And during that time I was actually very productive, even all I could do was make it to work and get back home. But what I learned through that battle was to always do what was most important first to plan out the day in advance of the week in advance to compartmentalize tasks for a certain day. And so fast forward, I beat chronic fatigue and now I have more energy than I know what to do with. And I never stopped reading about productivity, and I got in the habit of testing stuff to see if it would work, and even more importantly, wondered why things would work for some people and not for me. And so I kept on diving into this topic, and eventually, I’d gotten so much material that I just had to write a book.

Drew McLellan:

So probably everybody listening, as you know, either owns an agency or on the leadership team of an agency, probably every one of them has taken a time management course, they’ve probably read several of the books and they’ve all tried different things hit or miss. So how is your system different than what they’ve already seen?

Jon Denn:

Great question. So essentially there are lots of styles. I’m going to guess it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 30, 40, depending on how you want to look at it. Here’s the thing, when you read a great idea on LinkedIn or in a book and it doesn’t work for you, it’s because that’s not your style. So style is really important. There’s a famous story about… You remember that movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer chess prodigy?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Jon Denn:

So fast forward, he actually quit chess at 20. And now why would perhaps the strongest chess player of his generation quit the game? And it’s because the coach that got his hands on him was trying to teach him how to play defensive chess like Karpov instead of playing offensive chess like Fischer. So it completely ruined his taste for the game. Now, here’s this one thing, when you lose your why, when you lose your joy, when you’re not in flow anymore for something that you used to like doing, that’s not a good thing.

Drew McLellan:

Great.

Jon Denn:

So style is really important. So the difference, I think in my book is that I really wrote this book for people who have a different style than putting on a suit and a tie and going to work 9:00 to 5:00, it’s for everybody else, which is almost everybody else.

Drew McLellan:

Right. So how is it different? So most of the listeners, they are a hybrid of that, right? They do go to work 9:00 to 5:00, they just start at 7:00 and work till 10:00. And some days they do have a suit on and other days they’re in shorts and flip flops, but that’s the entrepreneur’s life.

Jon Denn:

Yeah, it’s like 9:00 to the following day’s 5:00, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Jon Denn:

All right. So at the heart of this, I wrote it for creatives, because I really am a creative myself. I’ve always defaulted to problem solving by the green thinking hat, creative solution outside the box, innovations, seeing things that no one has seen before. So I also took a look at time management, I think, probably no one ever has before. So my system is based on two, three hour sets a day, sets like music sets. So again, these are the artistic terms. The reason I used artistic terms was that it’s just more fun and time management, if it’s boring, no one’s going to do it. If it’s fun and you can remember what you’re supposed to do, you got a chance to actually doing it.

So in the three hour set, it’s comprised of a 90 minute solo session. You can do a duo session for deep thinking. This is stay on one topic, close the door, don’t answer the phone, turn off your notifications, put up a sign not to knock on the door, don’t surf the internet, do not pass go. You have to stay on one topic. So if you can do that for 90 minutes, you’re going to get a lot of high quality work done. I bet this has happened to you. I know it used to happen to me a lot. So you work and you’re just getting into a project, you’re 10, 15, 20 minutes in, and you’re going yourself, “You know what? I just had a deja vu.” It’s like I’ve done this before. Well, the reason is you have done it before and you got interrupted, put it down and never got back to it. So you just wasted two sessions on one project. So don’t do that. It’s called a time penalty. So that’s the first session is a 90 minute thinking session.

The second one is an hour for what I call a jam session for complex communications. These are in-person meetings, phone calls and for complex email where you have to actually put your mind into not a deep thinking space, but into a conversational space. Like I was really talking to you as I was writing something to you. So I can feel how you might be responding. It’s more empathetic. Whereas the deep thinking session, you’re really getting very abstract and not communicative. So it’s important in a jam session, I think, to do that complex emails then.

So then you want to squeeze as much time as you can out of those meetings, because the biggest mistake people make in meetings is that there’s four different kinds. And I think everybody in corporate America, they think there’s one kind, the boring kind, where you have to sit down and you have to waste half your day in unproductive meetings. So maybe we get to the four different kinds of meetings later. And then to finish out the three hours set, you had a half hour session for finales. These are any task you can complete in 30 minutes or less. And again, set the timer, just get it done. This is paying bills, ordering something, a quick phone call, a thank you note and anything at all that can get done in less than half an hour and you can get it off your list and clear the decks.

So if you can get one, three hours set in, in the morning and one, three hours set in, in the afternoon, you are going to be supremely productive and you still got two hours a day to walk around with the improv attitude of yes and no, but so you can work with other people and draw their creativity out of them and build the creative solutions that agencies need to be successful.

Drew McLellan:

All of that sounds lovely, but it sounds impractical if you don’t control your own calendar. So in most agencies, as you know, they are driven often by client need. And so what I often say in some of the trainings I do is the only day that actually plays out the way you want it to an agency is the day you called in sick, because every other day, the minute you walk in the door, especially if an agency owner or somebody in a leadership position, they spend so much of their time putting out fires that they didn’t know were going to ignite. And so how do you recommend for someone whose life is like that? How do they adapt this to be able to be more reactive and available during the day, because oftentimes they don’t know what’s coming?

Jon Denn:

No doubt. So I came out of the hotel industry, which is very similar to agencies. More things can go wrong in a hotel in one minute-

Drew McLellan:

They can’t even imagine, right?

Jon Denn:

…than any other industry. Hotel industries, like every business in every industry, in the world in one square block. So yeah, the emergencies here’s the thing. If you don’t delegate, you’re never going to get control of your day. So you have to make a list and the list goes something like this, these are the things that only I can do. And on the other side of the paper is everything else. Now, if you truly are a genius and you are kept flying behind you with the only person that could possibly come up with an answer, yeah, you’ve got a problem with your time management, because you’re the actor, you’re not the director. Okay. So you have to actually do those things.

But I think most emergencies in an agency can be delegated to the direct reports of the CEO. The reason you hire people like this is because you trust them. So you have to trust them to make a decision. It’s either going to be a correct decision or it’s going to be incorrect. If it’s incorrect and it’s going to take the ship down, that’s one thing, it’s incorrect and you can have a fantastic save. That’s a learning situation where that direct report can get better from that mistake and learn from it and not make it the next time. So the agency owner, they have to decide what it is that they can only do. And they’re stuck with that or hire someone that can help take the burden off and then delegate the rest and do more training. Yes, it hurts more on the front side, but it pays off beautifully on the back side.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think every agency owner nods their head and they know that intellectually, but doing it is a whole different thing. So what if you can only get one of these in a day, is that… So let’s say, I say, “You know what? My mornings, I have a little more control over, but by noon, my day is out of my control,” is it beneficial to at least get one set of these in, in the morning and then give up your afternoons for last?

Jon Denn:

I would do one set a day no matter when it is that you personally feel that you can. So if you’re a night owl, you might want to do it in the afternoon or even after work [crosstalk 00:15:39] not today. When I was writing the book, I got up at five o’clock every morning and I put a 90 minute session in for writing, so that by the time I had breakfast, I was already had my writing done for the day and I could go ahead and do everything else that I do. If you’re a morning person, you may very well want to get that 90 minutes session and first thing in the morning. You also might want to do it not at work and not at home, maybe at a third place.

So if you have interruptions at work and you can’t quite get your arms around that yet, and if you can’t get peace and quiet at home, stop it at a Panera, get a coffee, work for 90 minutes. They can’t find you, leave your phone in the car. You get your 90 minutes deep work done. So you can figure out what that end campaigns are going to be or what the pitch is going to be or what the hook is going to be for that client that you’re going to talk to you later on in the day, you can be brilliant and you can get on with the rest of your day.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So I’m a big advocate of agency owners spending one day out of the office, like a whole day, or two half days. But so this would be a perfect setup for those days when they really do have more control over their day, because they’re not in the office?

Jon Denn:

Yes, I absolutely agree. In fact the out of the office day can be something called a divergent day. So this can be where you aren’t necessarily coming up with answers to a problem, but you’re trying to figure out what the questions are. So if you have a client that nothing’s working for, you tried everything, you have to come up with something new, getting out of the office is a great place to do that.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, well, honestly, for them, it’s not a way they can even get their to-do list done is to divorce themselves from the office for a day or part of a day where they actually have uninterrupted time. Most of my listeners, if they can get 15 minutes uninterrupted, that’s a magic moment for them. So I think sometimes you just have to not be visible and available.

Jon Denn:

I agree. It’s the same thing as taking a long lunch. The place was still there before you left and will still be there when you get back and you’re just not there.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So I know some of your structure around the sets and all of that is based on neuroscience. Can you talk us through a little bit of that?

Jon Denn:

Yeah, absolutely. So the 90 minutes is actually based on science. So we get about three hours of quality thinking time of day. This is pretty well agreed upon by most experts. And you even know yourself, right? If you’re on a sprint and you got a big project, sure, you can concentrate for long periods of time for multiple days, but you also know you’re going to pay a price for that. You’re going to crash out for a day or two to get your strength back. So if on a regular basis, if you’re a long distance runner, you got about three hours of quality thinking time a day. So it’s best done probably in two 90 minute sessions. There’s something called ultradian rhythms. So these are rhythms in the body, like REM periods are about 90 minutes sessions. So recycles.

So after about 90 minutes, get up, stretch your legs, take a break, walk around the house, walk around the agency, wherever you are, clear your head, maybe don’t switch topics necessarily, but that’s the reason for the 90 minute sessions is that they’re really meant to capitalize on those three quality hours of thinking time. See the rest of the day, what really happens is you’re using mental models and habits the rest of the day. So these are common talks about as type one thinking, these are fast decisions. All I’ve done this 100 times before, you’re not going to do it differently the 100 and first time. You’ve seen this problem before you use the same answer that worked the last time.

So you don’t have to turn your… I call it turning your brain on for type two thinking, where you will, “Wait a minute, I’ve never seen this before. I have to pay attention to this and figure out a new answer, because I don’t know what to do with this situation.” So you got to protect those three hours for the stuff you’ve never seen before or stuff you never have done before or things you have to figure out than to waste them on things like I [crosstalk 00:19:59].

Drew McLellan:

Well, and again, to your point, everybody’s body rhythm is a little different. So hopefully, you know yourself well enough to know I’m great early in the morning or do I have to be up for a couple hours before my brains really kicks in, and then you can try and fashion your day around your body natural strength period.

Jon Denn:

Yeah. I think you have to be highly self aware. For example, when I was writing the book, I found out that, and this was new to me, I be pretty tired four o’clock in the afternoon, I’ve been up for almost 12 hours, and do I take a nap, do a task that was easy, like numbers, do I work out, do I, whatever, meditate? And what I found was that I was unusually creative when I was really tired. And the reason is that your inner critic, that voice in your head that says, “You tried that before, it didn’t work,” that gets turned off and basically your subconscious can almost come out in play, and it starts making all of these connections that you may have never seen before. And all of a sudden, your subconscious maybe asks a question and all of a sudden you have a eureka moment, that aha moment where you’ve actually solved the problem that maybe you’ve been working on all week. Style is really important.

Drew McLellan:

And I’m curious, how do you recommend, if somebody, they’ve let their workday dictate their style? So it’s like, well, everybody is at the office at 8:00, so I have to be at the office at 8:00, and we have a staff meeting first thing in the morning, whatever it is, like the structure of the office has formed the structure of their day. If somebody wanted to take a step back and actually pay attention to how their brain functioned in terms of what they’re good at, when, and when they’re at their best to do certain tasks, how does one discover that or how does one explore that?

Jon Denn:

Well, I’m a big fan of small tests. So that’s one of the rules in my book. So here’s a small test you could run. Is there an hour in a day at the shop where everybody is given permission to not answer their phone, to not look at their email and not to annoy anybody else in the office? One hour to get real deep thinking work done. Now, if you could get 90 minutes, that’d be the better, but let’s start with an hour. Let’s start with a half an hour. When people start realizing how much work they can get done without interruptions, they’re probably goin