Episode 171:

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 Click To Tweet “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 Click To Tweet “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 Click To Tweet “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 Click To Tweet

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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 going to want if they started at a half an hour, they can go to 45 minutes, maybe it goes to a whole hour, maybe it’s two 90 minute sessions a week. Test it and see if it works.

That’s the thing is that we don’t test anything anymore or like a process, we just try to analyze it all and say, “Oh that didn’t work on the very first time we tried it,” and then you give up. The thing is we now know from habit science, it takes anywhere from three weeks to three months, depending on the science you look at, to establish a new habit. The current number I’ve been using is two months. So if you can do anything for two months, you can establish a good habit or you can break an old bad habit. So try the quiet hour in your shop one day a week, one week, see if it worked. If it did, try a second hour for that week, keep testing it until you hit the break point where, “Oh my God! The office is too quiet, now, we have to go back and talk to some more clients.” If you call a client back in an hour, it will be fine.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah, in my shop we don’t have a set hour for everyone. What we did was we went out and got everybody those big orange traffic cones, and you can cone yourself for 90 minutes. And what that means is when you put that in the doorway of your cube or your office, depending on where you sit, what it means is unless the building is on fire, don’t interrupt me.

Jon Denn:

I love that.

Drew McLellan:

And it allows everyone to manage their own day around when they need to be productive and when they can be most productive.

Jon Denn:

I love it. That’s fantastic. I talk about having a big red circle as a stoplight. So you can print that out on your color laser printer and stick it up on your door on your glass.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So I’m not sure we got to the answer to my question, which is, okay, let’s assume I don’t know when I’m productive, I don’t know when my creative thinking time. We got off on a tangent, I think. I don’t know when I should be doing these different sessions, because I’m not sure how my body functions. I’ve allowed the office rhythm to define my own thinking rhythm. How do I step back and figure that out?

Jon Denn:

Well, yeah, I think it’s a matter of doing a small test. So one day on a Monday, you might say, “Okay, I’m going to try a three hour set in the morning or I’m going to try an hour quiet time in the morning.” If it didn’t work that day, try it in the afternoon. If it didn’t work that day, don’t give up yet, maybe try it at lunch, maybe try it today, maybe try it before you even get into the office. Now, if you’re an agency owner, there’s nothing wrong with coming in at 10:00. [crosstalk 00:25:24] people start their day. When I ran the hotels, the one thing I’d never really ever worried about was the breakfast shift in the restaurant. If they can’t put up breakfast without the general manager, then I got the wrong people and I’ll need to hire some new people, because it’s flipping eggs and pouring coffee as fast as you can. It’s just a drill, right?

So let everybody get their day started and come in and start your day with meetings at 10:30. Or you can get that 90 minute session in at home or at Panera or the library or wherever you want to go to get some creative juice. So be a big fan of small tests.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Good idea. Okay. So you had mentioned earlier in the conversation, the four different kinds of meetings. So I want to dig into that, but first let’s take a quick break and then we’ll come back and talk about that.

I want to take just a quick second and remind you that if you head over to the agencymanagementinstitute.com website, one of the things you’ll find there in our effort to support agency owners is some on demand training. We know that many of you want to attend our live workshops, but for some reason that doesn’t work out, maybe you’re outside of the US or maybe you have little kids and it’s tough to travel, or it may just be that our calendar and your calendar do not align. And so what we’ve done is we now have three courses that we either regularly or occasionally offer as a live workshop. And now we’ve got them in an on demand training version. So you can now find a Biz Dev workshop, our agency new business blueprint course, you can also find our AE bootcamp and our most recent addition is the money matters workshop.

So all of those are available. If you head over to the website and you go under training, you will see on demand training under that tab. And you can check out all three of those courses. And obviously those are courses that you can take at your leisure. You can get through the whole thing in a weekend, which I don’t recommend, or you can space it out over time, you can do it individually, you can do it with your leadership team, whatever serves your agency best. We just want to make sure that you know that they are there and available for you. All right, let’s get back to the episode.

All right, welcome back. I’m here with Jon Denn and we are talking about productivity and really structuring your day in a different way and thinking about your day in sprints, 90 minutes, 60 minutes, 30 minutes sprints around the different levels of energy and productivity and output that we’re capable of as neuroscience teaches us and as our own experiences teach us. So right before the break, one of the comments Jon made was, “Oh yeah, there are four different kinds of meetings.” We’ll get back to that. So I want to make sure we get back to that. So what are the four different kinds of meetings and how does that dovetail into this idea of productivity?

Jon Denn:

Okay, so I’m a process guy. And so by looking at your meetings in four different processes, it will save everyone a lot of time by trying to smash all of them together, because what happens now is they try to do all four at one time, because, “Hey, we’re all here, we might as well talk about all four,” and that’s not how our brains work. There are the four different kinds of meetings. The first two I call doing meetings. So the doing meetings are an information exchange through you know something I need to know and I know something that you need to know. We need to get that done in the most efficient manner. If that’s email or a scrum or a huddle for 15 minutes standing in the morning and again, in the afternoon before the day’s over, that’s great. If it can’t be done that way, yes, you can get together and you can quickly exchange. You can start the next meeting with one of those, if you’re already together.

So the second meeting is what I call a converge of meeting. We have enough information to make a decision, let’s make the decision. Here’s the thing though, many of the decisions that have to be made are really six of one half a dozen of the other. And there should be somebody in every meeting that says that, why do we keep talking about this? What’s the difference between the two answers? Let’s just get on with it. The difference between the two answers is usually that an extroverted elephant in the room is trying to manage their status and win just because they want to win, it’s not because that they have the best answer, it’s just because they need to be the winner.

So in convergent meetings, it’s a good idea to do as fast as you can identify that there’s really a difference between the solutions. And then to make sure who’s going to do what, by when, and not only a day, but a time, two o’clock on Friday. And so that way you have a list of convergent things that have to happen in a certain amount of time. So I call those two the convergent meetings.

The next two are not doing, they’re being. So that one I call a divergent meeting. So this is when you have to come up with the new ad campaign that’s going to blow the doors off your client’s business, because it’s so brilliant. You can’t do that in the same room that you talk about numbers. You can’t do them in the same room where last week you were disciplined by your boss for something you mishandled. It turns out that we’re very territorial animals, that has not been bred out of us yet. And so if you want to have a creative meeting, a divergent meeting, where you have to figure out what the questions are, be very creative, do it somewhere else, do it at a museum, do it outside, do it in a playroom, do it with crayons and music and foreign foods and different drinks. I like to have those meetings in messy spaces and have the doing meetings, the conversion meetings in very neat orderly spaces, because the mind needs to make unusual connections to come up with answers. So that’s the first being meeting.

And the fourth meeting that’s also being, I just call it social, purely social. In Sweden, I call it a Fika. So this is just people getting together to be people together. There’s not necessarily an agenda. In fact, there really shouldn’t be an agenda. But here’s what happens, if people are united in a goal and they like each other and they’re learning about what they’re supposed to be doing, that’s called self motivation. If you put a bunch of self motivated people together to have some fun, take your coffee breaks together all at the same time, not one at a time, have one or two meals together every week all of you, yes, go bowling or do an outing or something. Just be social. Good stuff will come from that.

There’s another thing in meetings called open space meeting technology that people are supposed to be in the room, will be in the room and they’ll talk about what they’re supposed to talk about. Just put the right people in the room. It’s like when you write a play, if you create the right players on the stage and give them a tough enough situation, there’ll be a play. The work is getting the right players and the right problem up on the stage. It’s not the actual writing of the play, it’s the context. So I’m saying the same thing here. So here’s the thing, if there’s four different kinds of meetings, try to look at them separately and not just jam them all together because we’ll save some time since we’re already all here. That’s false. That’s a great way to waste time.

Drew McLellan:

What I find in many agencies is, especially if they don’t have a lot of social meetings, every meeting turns into a social meeting. So never before in the history of man, has there been an industry or profession where people can get off on a tangent faster and all of a sudden be talking about a movie or some YouTube video or something they saw on Facebook faster than agency people. So I think, because they are super creative and super intelligent, they crave that interaction with other people like them. And so if you don’t give them the outlet for it in a true social meeting, every meeting runs the risk of turning into one of those.

Jon Denn:

I agree. And if you make space for the office coffee hour or the office lunch or an outing, that can serve to satisfy the social needs so that when you have to go into a convergent meeting, there’s no time left, we have to pitch the client tomorrow, what is the pitch going to be, you can get down to it and get it done.

Drew McLellan:

Great. Right. So I know in your book, this idea of these sets or sprints also tie to to-do lists. So how do you marry, because everybody listening has probably eight different to-do lists, they have a paper one, they have an electronic one, they have the one in their brain where they haven’t had a chance to put it in one of the other lists. So everybody’s struggling to manage their to-do list in a way that they actually get the most important things done and all of those things. How do you marry a to-do list with your notion of these sets, these 90 minute sprints?

Jon Denn:

Yeah, so I work in threes basically. The brain’s hardwired for threes. So the easy answer is whatever your favorite note taking program is on your smart device, you just set up, you can call it the drumbeat or the drum roll or the kettle, give it your own name, it doesn’t matter, but you want to have four headings, 90, 60, 30 and notes. So that’s the deep thinking session, the jam sessions and the finale sessions. And then notes is for anything that’s not going to happen after two weeks. So under the 90, you just put up a capital X and above the X is what you want to do this week and below the X is what you want to do next week. Same thing for the 60 minute meetings, same thing for the finales.

And then under notes, I think you probably already know this, but one of the reasons authors are supremely productive authors who put out like a book a year, they use a system that’s basically called folios. So if you’re a mystery writer, you’d have a folio for how to knock people off, because one day you’re sitting watching TV and you have this fantastic idea for a murder for one of your next novels, you write down the fantastic idea for how to knock people off in a folio. Now, a year and a half from now, you’re writing a novel and it’s time for one of your characters to go away, but you have no idea how you’re going to get rid of them. You go back to your folio for how to knock people off and I’ll look there’s that great thing I thought of a year ago. And you’re done and you keep on writing.

So in your notes, use folios for clients, industries, callers, whatever it is that frosts your creative boat, that’s a terrible metaphor, then go ahead and stick it in that folio for later now. So you’re walking in a grocery store and you see something and you make a connection for either something you want to do this week, next week, it’s either a deep thinking session or a meeting or something to do quick or something for later, you can stop in the grocery store, open up your notes, easily scroll to one of those sections, click on it, write it down, close it and move on. Oh my God! Is that efficient? How could it be any more efficient now? Good.

Drew McLellan:

So I just want to pair this back. First of all, I will tell you that A, I do aspire to write a mystery one of these days and my favorite plan is to write down my plan is to dispose of the body by having a shark eat it. But anyway-

Jon Denn:

We have those on Cape Cod actually.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, I know. So maybe that’s where it will be set. Anyway, so most people I think organize their to-dos by either days of the week or I’ve seen people organize them by here are phone calls I need to make, here are things I need to get done, here are meetings I need to schedule. So what you’re saying is instead of dividing them in those ways, what you’re suggesting is, think about what it’s going to take to get that to-do done. So do I need to spend some time on that and really be alone or in a small group of people working on it, so then that would be a 90 minute session, right? So that would be my thinking session.

If it’s something where I need to bring some people together to transfer information back and forth or it’s a status meeting or it’s a client check in meeting or something that’s more data transfer ask, then it would fall into the jam session or the 60 minute pocket. And then if it’s just like check, check, check, I got to answer that email, I have to send the birthday card, I have to, whatever those things are, those would fit into the finale sessions or anything I can get done in 30 minutes or less. So you’re recommending basically thinking about your to-do’s in terms of the amount of time and the type of time it would take to get it done.

Jon Denn:

Correct.

Drew McLellan:

Okay.

Jon Denn:

So you see how nice and neat and orderly that is and elegant and it’s not trying to divide it up into 27 different categories, it’s just do I really need to spend 90 minutes on this? No, I can get that done in 12 minutes. Okay, then put it in the finale section for either this week or next week. And this is how you would use it then. And this happens to me a lot. I’ll finish a big, long session and I’ll look at the clock and it’s not quite time for lunch, so it’s like I got, whatever, half an hour, 20 minutes, 45 minutes, and what do I need to work on right now? Well, typically my answer is I go to find finales, just knock off six or seven things as fast as I can. And I say to myself as a reward for getting this done, “I’m going to have myself a nice lunch.”

Drew McLellan:

Great.

Jon Denn:

Get yourself a nice lunch. You come back from lunch all refreshed and ready for another 90 minute deep dive on something.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, well, it’s interesting, because I think a lot of times especially after you’ve done an onerous task, which I suspect many of the 90 minutes, the thinking sessions are heavier. It takes more of me to get that done. I need to stay focused or whatever. I think when you come out of that, you’re a little drained. And so if you don’t have the list of the little quick things you can get done, quick phone calls, pop an email, schedule lunch with somebody, whatever it is, I think we default to I’m going to check my email or I’m going to check Facebook or I’m going to do something else that cleanses my mental palette. But instead, what end up happening is you get sucked into something else and now you’re off track for the rest of the day.

Jon Denn:

Correct. So when you do hit that spot of I’m tired, I don’t know what to work on next, either go for a walk and clear your mind or just go to your finales list and just pick something to start working on.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So I mentioned email, and I’m sure for you and everyone listening, email is a lovely tool, but it is also the bane of our existence. It is a very tight collar tied to a very short leash. So in your system, how do you manage for managing? So I bet most of my listeners get at least a couple 100 emails a day, so where in this system does that go?

Jon Denn:

So I think mostly email is a 30 minute finale session. And you might have to add one or two of those, because you have two extra hours in the day. So you can add an extra finale session. There’s three different kinds of thinking. There’s focus thinking, scanning and open mind, which actually lines up pretty well with my 90, 60, 30. So let’s talk about scanning. What I do, I changed my mind on email about two years ago. I used to keep a zero inbox and I was very proud of it and I felt very efficient. And I actually think I was wasting a lot of time every day. So I don’t keep a zero inbox anymore and I haven’t for two years. And it seems to be working much better for me.

What I do is I scan my emails first for whatever it is that I think is important for me that day. My regular clients need something from me, a prospective client has responded to something, a good friend of mine needs some help. And so I do a quick scan for those things first. When I get those done, I do a second pass and the second pass is just to make sure I didn’t miss any of the first pass of the first important things. And then I basically don’t bother with the rest of them. If they’re not either urgent or important, I don’t even open them usually.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. But what you’re suggesting though is that those would sit in the 30 minute, you’ve already done some deep diving today, you’ve already accomplished a few important tasks, now your brain needs a little bit of a respite and that’s the right time in your calendar to burn through your emails.

Jon Denn:

Yeah, do it either in a 30 minute finale session or in between maybe even 10 minutes in between a 90 and a 60.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. But it also sounds like sometimes emails would fall into the I have to communicate something complex, but I’m going to do it by email or whatever. It might fall into that jam session as well.

Jon Denn:

Well, yeah, I had one happened to me yesterday. So something came up that was out of the ordinary. It required three people to get involved. Only two people were currently involved. I know I’m going to have to spend a good 45 minutes writing this email, because there’s politics involved and I got to think about how is everyone going to read it after I write it and could they read it wrong and all of that stuff. So I didn’t do it yesterday. I haven’t done it yet today. I am planning on doing it this afternoon when I do get a 60 minute session and to do some communication. So I just saved it for them. That’s all.

Drew McLellan:

So for you, do you believe that even if you only do a full session once or twice a week, that productivity payoff is worth it, because as I said in the outset of our conversation, so much of an agency person’s day, whatever their role is, is really out of their control. And so the idea that would you have six hours in a calendar that you could structure all to yourself is probably unrealistic, but I do believe they could get a couple half days a week of this thinking. So is it worth blending this into the rest of your weird client driven calendar or is this an all or nothing thing?

Jon Denn:

No, it’s not all nothing at all. In fact, we started talking about styles. I would try one hour session where you can get your work done somewhere in the shop in your first week. If you like it, try to do two hours that week, try to do 90 minutes in one day, and start looking at these things and these drums, these 90 minute drums, 60 minute drums, 30 minute trumps in which you go. What will happen over a matter of a couple of months is you’re going to start thinking in these sessions and sets, and you’re going to start naturally thinking about, “You know what? I’m going to save this for Thursday afternoon, because I know I’ll have time for it,” because you’re starting to think in these buckets. Some people call it all of different names for it, but clusters or-

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, chunking.

Jon Denn:

[crosstalk 00:45:59] chunking. Yeah. So, I call them drums, because none of it sounds fun. Drums sound like fun. Who doesn’t want to bang on the drums a while, make some noise.

Drew McLellan:

Well, I think you’re right. I think people naturally are wired to some of this anyway, but we don’t have a system or a process the way you’ve outlined it to think through where those tasks go. And I do think the other thing is if people are listening and they’re saying, “There’s no way I can do this, this week.” Well, odds are that’s true, your calendar’s probably already overburdened this week. So this may be have to be something that you plan out a few weeks in advance to start trying when your calendar is still a little more forgiving and maybe you do block in a half a day or one 90 minute session or one 60 minute session and start easing into it. And as Jon says, you can experiment and then figure out what works for you. And I think it’s an interesting point you made, Jon, that these don’t have to all come during the business day. So like for you when you were writing, you got up at the crack of dawn and you got your first half a day in before most people were having breakfast.

Jon Denn:

Yeah, I actually was getting three 90 minute sessions in a day when I was writing the book. Here’s a quick tip, by the way, for getting control of your calendar if you want to start trying this out. So go out two weeks, three weeks, whenever you start seeing some open space in your calendar, and block a 90 minute session that just says, and make up a code name for it, doesn’t matter. And put that in your calendar so that who’s ever booking your time for you, can’t book it. Okay. So put down a deep thinking session if you want to be really straight up about it, but you could put a planning session, budgeting. You don’t have to do budgeting, but no one’s going to book that time for you to do something else so that when that time does come in three weeks, you’ve got yourself your first 90 minutes solo sessions without interruptions. [crosstalk 00:48:01].

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, I’m guessing for a lot of listeners that’s what they’ll have to do is they’ll have to go out a few weeks and then start blocking time. And I think what you do is you do learn your own rhythm and you know, okay, I need X number of those a week to be able to actually get through my to-do list so I’m not working all weekend so I actually get to spend time with my family, whatever you want to do in your off time. I think managing your calendar and your energy, because that’s really what this is a combination of. It’s a mix of managing your calendar, but also channeling your energy when it is ready to do the tasks you need to get done. By figuring that out a little better, you do carve out more time for non work things, which are the reason why we work.

Jon Denn:

Yeah, here’s another little trick your listeners can use. So you can keep a little journal for about a month, maybe two months and for these little observations about what you do well, when. So when I was running the hotels, I would notice I’d get a project at Friday at three o’clock, I look at it and go, “Oh my God! This is going to take me three hours. I don’t want to stay on six o’clock.” So whatever. I decided not to do it, do something else, go home, come back on Monday morning, and that same project will take me maybe 25 minutes. Why? Because my brain figured out over the weekend, how to do it faster, quicker, what needed to be done, what didn’t need to be done, what I could do later, what I could never do, and instead of staying three hours on a Friday, I spent 20 minutes on it on a Monday. So think about, breathe a little bit and see what things work for you, and then start building a little mental palace for this stuff where you can compartmentalize what you’ll do well, when.

Drew McLellan:

Right, which is not the same thing as procrastinating guys, something that you don’t want to do. They’re not the same thing. Yeah. So Jon, this is great. I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface, but I know your book goes into a lot more detail about this. But I want to be mindful of your time. So if folks want to find out more about your system, about the book, about the work you do, I know you teach some workshops, where can folks go to, to learn all of that?

Jon Denn:

Okay. So my website’s easy to remember. It’s drumbeatproductivity.com. And if you sign up for the email list on the home page, there’s a free download for an extreme makeover of your to-do list. So this is fun. This is the way to double your downtime. In less than an hour, you’ll do a brain dump and you will start your 90, 60, 30 minutes to-do list so that you’re off and running for your first two weeks. And you’ll set up your portfolios for your projects in less than an hour. So that’s for free on my website.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome. Thank you very much for taking the time today to help us think a little differently about how to structure our day, how to get more out of our day, how to leverage the different energies that we carry throughout the day and do all of that and in service of ourselves and our agencies. I appreciate your time.

Jon Denn:

It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

You bet. Okay, guys, this wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. A couple of reminders, if you have not signed up for our podcast giveaway, remember that a lot of our authors like Jon and other folks, have written books or have courses, and many of them are very generous and give us something that they have produced to give away free to you, but you cannot win if you don’t sign up. I know I sound like a lottery commercial, but go to agencymanagementinstitute.com/podcastsgiveaway and give us your email address. If you’ve already done that, you’re done, you don’t have to do it again. You’re in the drawings forever and ever. If you’ve won once, it does not mean you can’t win again. We also give away AMI workshops and all kinds of other things. So make sure you do that.

Also, if you will, I’m always grateful for ratings and reviews on the podcast. That’s how other folks find us. And it gives me good feedback on what you love and what you want more of. So also appreciate that. I will be back next week with another guest who’s going to help you figure out how to tweak what you’re already doing well and how to rethink some things that are frustrating you all with the pursuit of building a stronger, more scalable, more sustainable agency. In the meantime, if you’re looking for me, you know where to find me. I’m at agencymanagementinstitute.com and I am always happy to take your emails or texts. And you can find me on social. So I’m out there if you need me, come find me. And otherwise I will see you next week. Thanks so much.

That’s a wrap for this week’s episode of Build a Better Agency. Visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to check out our workshops, coaching packages, and all the other ways we serve agencies just like yours. Thanks for listening.