in: Career, Career & Wealth, Podcast

• Last updated: July 8, 2024

Podcast #1,001: Systems and Tools for Stealing Back Hours of Productivity

Businesses and individuals often feel overwhelmed and stretched — that they can’t get done all the work they need to. The solution they frequently turn to is finding a new app to use or hiring more employees to spread the load.

But my guest would say that you can steal back hours of productive time simply by using the tools and teams you have now, if you learn to use them in a more efficient way.

Nick Sonnenberg is the founder and CEO of Leverage, an efficiency consulting business and the author of Come Up for Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work. Today on the show, Nick explains how people spend almost 60% of their time doing work about work, and why hiring more people can actually make the problem worse rather than better. He then shares his “CPR Business Efficiency Framework,” and how making changes in how you communicate, plan, and manage resources can open up hours of time. We talk about how to organize your communication channels so your work day isn’t taken up by what Nick calls “The Scavenger Hunt,” one of the most underutilized tools for taming your inbox, how to stop wasting time on meetings, and tiny changes that will add up to many hours saved each year. Along the way, we talk about how some of these tactics can save you time in your personal life as well.

Resources Related to the Podcast

Connect With Nick Sonnenberg

Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)

Apple Podcast.




Listen to the episode on a separate page.

Download this episode.

Subscribe to the podcast in the media player of your choice.

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Businesses and individuals often feel overwhelmed and stretched that they can’t get done all the work they need to. The solution they frequently turn to is finding a new app to use or hiring more employees to spread the load, but my guests would say that you can steal back hours of productive time simply by using the tools and teams you have now if you learn to use them in a more efficient way. Nick Sonnenberg is the founder and CEO of Leverage, an efficiency consulting business and the author of “Come Up for Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work.”

Today in the show, Nick explains how people spend almost 60% of their time doing work about work and why hiring more people can actually make the problem worse rather than better. He then shares his CPR Business Efficiency framework and how making changes in how you communicate, plan, and manage resources can open up hours of time. We talk about how to organize your communication channels so your workday isn’t taken up by what Nick calls the scavenger hunt, one of the most underutilized tools for taming your inbox, how to stop wasting time on meetings and tiny changes that will add up to many hours saved each year. Along the way, we talk about how some of these tactics can save you time in your personal life as well. After the show is over, check out our show notes at

Nick Sonnenberg, welcome to the show.

Nick Sonnenberg: Thanks for having me, Brett.

Brett McKay: So you run an operational efficiency consultancy, basically your company helps other companies do their work more efficiently. So how did you get into operational efficiency consultancy?

Nick Sonnenberg: [chuckle] Good question. Well, my whole life I’ve always been obsessed with time. I think that time is our most scarce resource, and even as a kid, my mom would be telling me bedtime stories and I would be sitting there, I’d be like, “Okay. Get to the end.” So she was wearing red and got eaten by wolf. So I’ve always been antsy with time, and in my prior life, I was a high frequency trader. And if you don’t know what that is, I would build algorithms to code computers at super high frequencies; we’re looking at nanoseconds and microseconds, and I would trade billions and billions of dollars of stocks fully automated. And so in that space, literally a microsecond could mean millions. And that’s where I developed this appreciation even further of the value of time and automation and process, all of those things.

And when I got into startups, I applied the same type of thinking and passion for time in the startup life. And early days of Leverage, my company, we were still in the time saving space, but we were doing tasks and projects for people, so we were a freelancer marketplace. And I was always more interested though in the behind the scenes. There’s this explosion of new tools, there’s Trello, there’s Slack, there’s Zapier, there’s all these tools, but there’s no playbook. How do you tie all these things together to run a high performing team? So I was always really more interested with how the sausage was made, so to speak, versus what the sausage was.

And we grew very quickly. So my kind of short story here is we grew to about seven figures in the first year, fully bootstrapped, about 150 people on the team. But we got ahead of our skis. And even though that’s impressive, we were losing a ton of money. We were losing about half a million dollars a year in profit, three quarters of million dollars in debt. And so even though we had some stuff figured out, we were missing a lot of other pieces. And one day my business partner tapped me on the shoulder, we were having coffee, and he told me he was leaving and he didn’t give me two weeks or two days, he gave me two minutes notice. And I’m sitting there, I go white and I’m thinking, “Holy crap, we’re gonna go bankrupt.”

And even though we had a lot of things automated, he was the face of the company, no one knew who I was. And so when he left, we within literally a matter of three months, lose immediately 40% of revenue profit, team members, clients, everything. It’s like just verge of bankruptcy. And in this really stressful time and I’m cashing out my 401Ks, my dad’s taking second mortgages on his house for our payroll, it was really hard to really fix the fundamental problems. It was obvious what some of the foundational issues were, but I was drowning so much in work that I didn’t have more time to fix the things I needed to fix. So the biggest constraint I think that we all face is time. If you had infinite time, you could build a trillion dollar company, but we’re all constrained by 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And so one day I really just sat back and I did a time audit and I’m like, “Where the hell am I wasting all this time, because I need more time to make time Just like it takes money to make money, it takes time to make time.”

And I realized that there were these three major buckets where there was a leak in the bucket. First was communication and that was the biggest one. By the time I responded to all the Slack messages and emails, basically the day was already shot, it was already eight hours in by the time I got through all that. Then the next bucket was planning. So I couldn’t just click a button and know what did I need to do, what’s my team doing, what did I ask someone to do that got done, didn’t get done. So I knew that that was a huge bucket. And then lastly what I call resources. I knew that it was important to document all of our processes, all of our SOPs, standard operating procedures, like how do we actually operate? And I was already pretty good at that.

Had I not have been doing that, we would’ve gone bankrupt. So long story short, I realized, I had this light bulb moment, “Hey, there are these three buckets, communicate, plan, resource.” And I started focusing on these and the company started turning around really quickly. And then people started reaching out asking me to consult. So I didn’t go to college thinking I’m gonna be a consultant, I fell into this space and people like Tony Robbins, Poo-Pourri, the poop spray, Ethereum, a lot of interesting companies reached out to me to take a look at how they operated. And it turned out it didn’t matter if it was one of the world’s top coaches or a poop spray, everyone had these three buckets. So ultimately we decided to pivot the company to focus on teaching people how to leverage all of these new systems and tools properly. No one’s ever been taught the purpose of these tools, and so ultimately that’s how we landed in this space and now that’s what we do. And that’s why I wrote a book about it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. These three tools, so communications, planning and the resources, it reminds me of that idea that Cal Newport has in “Slow Productivity” of administrative overhead. It’s the work you gotta do to do the work. And I think a lot of companies and individuals, they probably know it’s like most of my work I do every day, it’s just work to actually do the work that makes us money.

Nick Sonnenberg: Yeah. Actually, so Asana, one of the tools I talk about in the book, every year they come out with a report called the Anatomy of Work Index. And they call it work about work. And it turns out that 58% of people’s time is spent on work about work. So that’s like duplicated work, unnecessary meetings, switching apps, lost information, just things that don’t give you joy or add to the bottom line.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You see this in your personal life too, it’s called life admin. It’s the work you have to do to do the things that you do in your family; kids doing sports, getting the house remodeled, taking care of bills. That stuff like the paperwork, it sucks up so much of your time. And so what I hope we can do in this conversation is talk about how this mental model you’ve developed, how it can apply to business, but also look at how it can apply to our personal lives as well. So one thing that companies often do when they feel like they’re just treading water, they’re just drowning in administrative overhead, all this work about work is they look, “Well, here’s a solution we can do. We can just bring in more people, ’cause if we have more people, we can get more done.” But counterintuitively bringing in more people just makes work more difficult and can just increase the feeling of treading water. So how does adding more people to a group make work harder?

Nick Sonnenberg: Yeah. I advise adding people as a last resort, not a first resort. And so if we take a step back and think for a second, “Why do we hire people?” No one wants more people. What people want is they want more capacity and capability. And the way that right now people default thinking that they need to do that is adding more bodies to the mix. But it’s really the worst way to do it. Not only when you hire someone, you have to pay for the recruiting, the onboarding, the training costs, the salary, but every single person that you add to your team adds exponential complexity. It’s a math equation; it’s N times N minus one over two if you care to know. It comes from networking. So if you are a five person team, it’s five times four divided by two, there’s 10 ways to connect.

Now you go to a 10 person team, it’s 10 times nine over two, 45 ways to connect. You’re 100 person team, 4,950 ways to connect. So it explodes exponentially. When I say networking, it’s what’s the value of a cellphone? If you’re the only person that owns a cellphone, it’s worth nothing ’cause you have no one to talk to. But if the value of the network of cellphones grows exponentially, the more cell phones and the more combinations of people you can call. But the other side of that is there’s exponential complexity. There’s more ways for information to get lost, forgotten, slip through the cracks. So really you wanna keep your team as small as possible, as long as possible. And what I advocate for is why not just get an extra 20% to 40% out of everything you’ve got right now and save all the fees and the headache of having a big team. I think also now, not only with the tools, but now with the explosion of AI with all of these tools, I think we’re gonna start seeing smaller and smaller teams being able to produce millions if not billions of dollars with teams of five to 10.

Brett McKay: Yeah. We run a pretty lean ship here at AoM, it’s just basically me and my wife.

Nick Sonnenberg: That’s great.

Brett McKay: We have some contractors that do some stuff for us. And we’ve both been reluctant to bring more people on. People are always like, “You should grow, you should expand.” And it’s just like, “I don’t know if I wanna manage other people.” ‘Cause I feel like I would be spending less time doing the creation stuff, which is what we enjoy, and more time just thinking about, “Okay. Is this person doing the thing that I asked them to do?”

Nick Sonnenberg: Totally. No one’s gonna do it better than you, so if you’re 10 times faster than someone else, by the time you explain it in an hour meeting, it could have been done already, plus you’re onto the next thing. So yeah, I think that people sometimes flex on the size of their team, but I think that that’s gonna be a flex of the past. It’s impressive to hear that, “Oh, I run a 1000 person team or a 100 person team, but I’m much more interested, what’s the revenue per team member or what’s the profit per team member? I think that that’s a much more impressive metric.

Brett McKay: Okay. So as you add more people, just increase the complexity of work ’cause there’s just more potential connections where things can get lost. Another issue, and this is related to the complexity factor, it’s a source, the complexity factor causes this problem, and you see this in a lot of the companies you consult, is the scavenger hunt. What’s the scavenger hunt?

Nick Sonnenberg: The scavenger hunt is when it takes longer to find what you’re looking for than it should. And sometimes it even takes longer to find what you’re looking for than it would’ve taken you just to get it done from scratch. Part of that 58% I mentioned before, part of that is a scavenger hunt. “Did Brett email me or was that a text message or was that a Slack direct message or was that in a channel or was that in Asana?” And you have to start looking in 10 different places to try to find this one thing. And I think that’s one of the biggest issues that we face in business right now, is this issue of a scavenger hunt. And no one likes it, it adds no value to the company. Not only does it waste time, but it drains your energy.

So by the time you’re done with the scavenger hunt, it’s not like you’re mentally in a great state to produce the best work. There’s other research out there that, I know IDC came out with a report, that about 30% of the workday is spent searching for information. Mckenzie’s come out with some, 20% of time is spent in tracking down internal information. So it’s a massive percentage of time, this whole scavenger hunt and searching. And the underlying principle of my book, if I had to summarize my book in a sentence, I think that to be a high performing team or organization, you have to completely flip the strategy that you’re using. So right now, the strategy that everyone’s using is you’re optimizing to just send information fast. You’re kind of being selfish in the sense that it’s the end of the day and you just wanna do what’s easiest for yourself.

I send Brett a text, I send Jessica an email, I send Caleb an Asana task. And there’s no rhyme or reason, it’s just maybe I prefer it in the moment, or I was in the tool so it was just a little bit quicker for me. But you can imagine when everyone is using that as a strategy, which is basically no strategy, it’s just whatever’s fastest for themself in the moment, it becomes really difficult to find whatever you’re looking for. And if people were to pause and take an extra five seconds to just put things in the right drawer that it belongs, you’re not anymore optimizing just to send information fast, you’re now optimizing to find information fast. And that’s really where you start seeing exponential time savings.

And we were talking about personal life before, take your personal life. If you wanted to just finish your laundry as fast as possible, you’d take it out of the dryer and you just throw it in one drawer and call it a day. But most people don’t do that. Most people spend an extra minute or two and you separate your socks in one drawer or your underwear in another drawer. And we do this not because it’s the fastest way to be done with laundry, but we know that tomorrow when we need to get an outfit together, it’s much faster to find what we’re looking for. And it’s the same idea with business.

If you just on the front end invest a little bit extra time on the backend, everyone saves. And the chest of drawers that we work with in business, that we’ve got a drawer for internal communications, a drawer for external communications, another drawer for our SOPs. There’s all these drawers, and it’s important that as a team you’re aligned on what are the drawers that we’re playing with here and when and how do we use each of these tools. And if you do that and everyone makes a mutual commitment to invest a little bit of extra time to put things where it belongs, what goes around comes around. And that’s really where we start seeing really fast results of 10 to 20 hours a week back per employee very quickly.

Brett McKay: Okay. So the scavenger hunt occurs when people optimize for the speed of transfers. You just wanna use whatever app that you like, that’s the fastest to use. If you like texting, you’re gonna text. If you like email, you’re gonna use email. But the problem it causes, it causes people to have to think about where’s that information.

Nick Sonnenberg: Exactly.

Brett McKay: So instead we should be optimizing for the speed of retrieval of information. And you see this issue of the scavenger hunt in your personal life too. I was looking at the tech stack that I got to use to manage my kids’ life and it’s getting out of control ’cause every little group they belong to have their own communication app.

Nick Sonnenberg: Like which ones?

Brett McKay: And I’m having… So they’ve got… There’s the Remind app for school. That’s what the teachers use to tell what’s going on, so you gotta check that. There’s different apps for sports, managing sports teams. And the problem is there’s all sorts of different versions of these types of apps out there. And so different teams will be using a different one and then some teams might not use one of those apps, they might use GroupMe, and then your church might have their own communications app and then they’re using email. And so a lot of my bandwidth is being sucked up by scavenger hunt. It’s like, “Okay. Which app do I gotta use to communicate this aspect of my child’s life?” And I’m just like, “Man, can just people just use email?” Just use email. That’s all you need to use. It’s universal. We don’t need these different communications apps.

Okay. So let’s talk about how we can start reducing some of this work about work. Talk about the communication part of your CPR framework. Let’s talk about some ways that organizations can start communicating more efficiently.

Nick Sonnenberg: Yeah. So first of all, to reduce the scavenger hunt as it relates to communication, I bucket in the book communication into three sub buckets; You have personal communication, you have internal communication with your team, and then you’ve got external communication that’s clients, vendors, partners. So what I advocate for is default to text being for personal, email being for the external, and things like Slack, Microsoft Teams being for your internal.

And there’s reasons for this. Each tool has functionality that’s optimized for those use cases. But even if you don’t use all of the features and automations and all of those things, which you should, don’t get me wrong, just separating into those buckets makes it already a lot easier to find what you’re looking for ’cause I know, “Hey, what did Jessica tell me? Okay. Well, Jessica’s on my team, so I’ll look in the internal communication tool.” Versus, “Hey, that could be an email, it could be a text, or it could be a Slack message.” You see what I mean?

So already you’re reducing where you need to look by an order of magnitude. Then beyond that, obviously, you wanna use each of these tools to their highest and best use. One of the most popular things we teach is Inbox Zero, which is essentially turning your email into an external to-do list that other people can add to. And we don’t advocate zero being actually getting to zero, but less than 20, less than 30. You’re just not wasting time rereading things, missing things.

Brett McKay: So in the companies you consult and in your own company, email is only for external communication. How does using email only for external communication, not internal communication, make a company more effective?

Nick Sonnenberg: So for one, at least you’re creating that separation. But if you think about email, it’s very basic. It’s ordered chronologically. The most recent email is at the top of your inbox. For tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams, it’s not ordered chronologically, it’s ordered by topic. You can have channels, so you can have a finance channel, a marketing channel, an HR channel. You can get as granular as you want and that’s where you can house these conversations. You can put third party integrations into those channels. So I don’t even need to leave Slack, if someone signs up, if someone books a call, the things that I care about, we have automated messages going to different channels. I turn off all the popups so I’m not getting distracted, but I don’t need to log into basically any tool, I get a message in the relevant channel in Slack for anything that I care about.

Also, I just want to be clear, the rules or the framework that I lay out, it’s not meant to be 100% rigid. There’s always an exception to the rule. So if your office is on fire or getting robbed, go ahead and text someone or email someone, [chuckle] you know what I mean? I’m just trying to lay out the default behavior should be this and then use your judgment if you need to go outside of what the normal framework is.

Brett McKay: You also provide some other advice on what you can do to tame the email monster. And one is to be more selective about sending emails in the first place, like maybe you don’t send an email. Why is that?

Nick Sonnenberg: Well, there’s a boomerang effect to emails; the more emails you send, the more you get back. And the best way to get to Inbox Zero is to get to email zero. So all the emails that should be with your team, move that to the internal communication tool, right? Because that tool is more optimized. It’s not like you’re moving crap from under one rug to moving it to under another rug, you’re moving it to a place where it’s gonna be easier to retrieve in the future. So the best way is to just get to email zero. And like I said, the more you send, the more you get back. So just be mindful. Some people like to do send laters so if you’re writing emails on the weekend, maybe you hit the send button, but there’s a button where you could send later and you send it to hit their inbox on a Monday. That way, you’re not having to get into a back and forth on the weekend.

Brett McKay: You also talk about when you’re going through your emails you got to be ruthless. So when you’re going through your inbox, you have to figure out, “Okay. Am I gonna reply to this? Do I need to reply to this?” And maybe you don’t need to reply to it, it’s just an informational email. You don’t have to be like, “Thanks.” You don’t need to do that.

Nick Sonnenberg: Yeah. I hate when people are like… In general, I don’t do the whole thanks thing or the okay. I don’t feel like we need to be overly acknowledging. But the framework that we teach for Inbox Zero is called RAD, which stands for reply, archive and defer. Every email that comes in, those are the only three things that you can do to that email. So if something requires a reply, I’ll reply to it. Most people make the mistake, though, of thinking that they need to really be deleting a lot of emails. And I’m here to tell you, you don’t need to do that anymore.

You have so much cloud storage up there in the cloud that you’re not gonna run out of storage. So you don’t have to delete anything, you can just archive the things that aren’t important to you right now. That way, it’s still searchable. And then the defer part of RAD, that’s snoozing, and it’s built into Google. It’s probably built into Outlook, if you have the right version. Otherwise, you can install Boomerang. But snoozing is one of the most underutilized things in email where you can basically click a magic button, and the email disappears from your inbox, and then it reappears at some date in the future. It’s a great way to just get things out of sight, out of mind, but to appear back at a specific strategic date in the future when you do want to revisit it. Like take today’s recording, you sent out some information, I read it in the moment, but I wanted to reread it this morning. So I snoozed it, and it wasn’t sitting in my inbox for a couple of weeks, it just popped up this morning. So I was able to refresh myself.

Brett McKay: Okay. So email for external communication only. So if you own a business, it’s going to be like clients, vendors, people like that. You don’t want to use it for internal communication, ’cause you’re going to use… This is the second sub bucket, internal communication, you’re going to use some sort of chat app, it could be Slack could be Discord, something like that.

Nick Sonnenberg: A big mistake that people make too though with those tools, we have to define what is communication. So for me, things like, “Hey. Welcome, Nick, to the team,” or, “Congratulations on closing that deal.” That’s communication. A lot of people… Look, it’s better to use a tool like Slack or Microsoft Teams over email for internal, but there’s a difference also between what to put in a work management tool versus a communication tool. So if I wanted to say, “Hey, edit this podcast by Friday.” Technically, I could do that in a lot of different ways, right? I could Slack you, I could text you, I could email you. Those are all communication tools. Of those, if we’re on the same team, Slack would be the best or Microsoft Teams. But even better, I want to hold you accountable for that task. A person is assigned to it, there’s a specific due date, something needs to get done that we don’t want to slip through the cracks. That’s where a tool like Asana, or Monday or ClickUp, or I know you use Todoist, that’s when you would want to use one of those types of tools.

So there’s some nuances here, but you have to also keep in mind when to use communication tools versus assigning tasks to people that you want to make sure happen. Because we’ve all been there where you use a tool like a Slack or Microsoft Teams, and you’re high frequency delegating, and before you know it, you’ve had 100 conversations for the day. You can’t just click a button in one of those tools to know, “Hey, in the end, what do I have to do today?” That’s the purpose of a work management tool, you’re able to click one button and know, “What do I need to do? What did I delegate? What got done that I delegated? What’s the status of this project?” So I wouldn’t put anything into Slack or Microsoft Teams that I’m really expecting to get done that I need to hold someone accountable to. That’s where a work management tool comes in.

Brett McKay: Okay. So what kind of stuff can you see in a Slack, typically? So like the work stuff is gonna be in a work management, what kind of internal communication would you put into a chat?

Nick Sonnenberg: “Hey, what do you think of this new dashboard that we designed?” Or, “Happy work anniversary, Arno.” Or those automations of, “Hey, we just got to sign up.” Quick kind of chats. But if if anything follows the mad lib, “Hey, person’s name, get this thing done by this date,” if it kind of follows that structure, more than likely it belongs in a work management tool, not in a communications tool.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. Okay. So I like this rubric of splitting up external communication and internal communication, ’cause it’ll just make things easier to find. So instead of going to email to find internal communication, you’re like, “Well, I’ll just go to the chat, I’m not going to go to email.” You mentioned the third communication sub bucket is personal text. That can get unwieldy, though, too, ’cause as I said, not only do you have your SMS text service, you might be using GroupMe, you might be using Telegram, you might be using WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Discord. I just remembered there’s actually an app for this. Have you heard of

Nick Sonnenberg: No, what does that do?

Brett McKay: No. So was automatic. The company that runs WordPress, they bought this company called It’s a universal text messaging app. So you can connect all your text services you use, so iMessenger. Let me see what we got here. We got iMessage, WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Messenger, LinkedIn, Slack, Discord DMs. And it’s all in a single dashboard.

Nick Sonnenberg: Wow. That’s cool.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So check, we’ll put a link to that. They just need to connect those sports league school management apps. [chuckle] That’d be awesome.

Nick Sonnenberg: Yeah. There was a few others that I tried a long time ago, I can’t remember the names, that connected all of them. I wasn’t super impressed. We used to use Intercom that connected a bunch of things together. And then there’s FrontApp that connects a bunch of things together a little bit more on the work side, not the personal side. Yeah, this looks pretty cool. That must have been a really expensive URL for them to buy.

Brett McKay: Oh, yeah. For sure. We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. So let’s talk about the planning part of CPR. So C is communications, we talked about what you can do to make communications a bit more effective, reduce the scavenger hunt. Planning, you mentioned meetings, that something like we said $40 billion a year is wasted in meetings. What can we do to reduce the cost of meetings?

Nick Sonnenberg: So when you think about what are all the inputs to the cost of a meeting, it’s, well, how many people are in the meeting, how long the meeting is, how frequent the meeting is, what’s the hourly rate of these people. So if you can reduce any of those, even by 10%, it starts adding up, especially the bigger the team you are, or the bigger the company, the more savings there’s going to be. Oftentimes, man, I’m blanking, what’s that law? You fill the time that you’re allocated, right? So usually, an hour long meeting, if you reduce it to 45 minutes, you’re going to be able to get the same amount of stuff accomplished. Especially if you start really mindfully auditing these meetings, what can we strip out and pre-record a Loom, or Amazon has that famous, I think it’s like a six page document that people have to pre-read before the meeting. But what’s the pre-work, whether it’s a document, whether it’s a Loom, but prepare for that meeting. That meeting should also have an agenda. So most meetings, I would say over 90% of meetings that we see our clients having, they don’t have agendas, you kind of just show up, you shoot the crap for a bit, and it’s like, “Hey, what are we doing here?”

So a meeting should have an agenda, it should be really clear, like, “What do we need to accomplish on this meeting? Why are we here?” ‘Cause if you’ve got five people on a meeting, and their hourly rate is a 100 bucks an hour, it’s a $500 meeting, if it’s an hour long meeting. Some things that we do is every quarter we just delete all the recurring meetings and then we just see what shows back up. Because oftentimes, you find that meetings are still weekly, just because that’s how the person set it up two years ago and so we’re still doing weekly. But oftentimes, a weekly meeting can move to bimonthly or monthly. So those are some really quick ones that you can do.

Also, the whole thing with an agenda, these things go all hand in hand. This is a holistic framework. So the agenda also helps you reduce the communication noise that you have. And what I mean by that is, let’s say I have a question for you, like, “Hey, Brett, should we raise our prices by 10%?” And that’s a question that I put in Slack. Well, now I’ve distracted you. And now we might be going on a back and forth for the next 30 minutes talking about this, versus you could have a policy in your company that if something’s not urgent, and it can wait till next week’s meeting, stick it as a talking point in the meeting. So that agenda ends up being a really good place for people to house things that otherwise they’re going to be putting in that communication tool and distracting colleagues in the moment.

David Allen wrote a great book called “Getting Things Done.” And one of the underlying principles in that book is that your brain is for having ideas, not holding ideas. So if you don’t give your team a place to brain dump, where they can trust that it’s not going to get lost, that’s where you start seeing all of these texts and emails and Slack and Microsoft Teams messages because they want to get it out there. They don’t want to just be walking around holding on to this idea, ’cause it’s hard to come up with new ideas if you’re hanging on to all this stuff that needs to be said or spoken about.

So giving someone a place where they could do a brain dump, and they can trust that in the future it’s going to get covered, it’s not going to get lost, it’s a great way to move on with your day and not have the anxiety and not also distract your team. And it turns out that probably half the things that you’ve added to the agenda just naturally fall off by the meeting anyway. And kind of back to the parallel with personal life, it’s like you wouldn’t do your laundry every time one pair of socks gets dirty. So you want to wait for the bin to get full and then do a load of laundry. It’s the same thing with talking points. Every time you have a talking point, if it’s not urgent, don’t distract your colleague, just add it to a place like an agenda, and then batch cover a bunch of it next time you meet.

Brett McKay: Okay. Yeah, I love that. So you have a nice flowchart here in the book. The first question is, “Does this really need to be a meeting? “No.” “Cancel the meeting. [laughter] You don’t need to do that.” And the other one I liked was to help make meetings more effective and efficient, “Avoid the report outs.” I hate those where the meeting leader’s like, “All right. Everyone go around, give us a report.” And you’re like, “This could have been an internal communication. We could all just glance at it and see the status, we don’t need to hear it.” So use meetings just to hash out a specific issue on an agenda.

Nick Sonnenberg: Yep. And like I said, there’s tools like Loom, you can watch it at 2x speed. Now AI is getting built into all of these things, so you’ll be able to say like, “Give me the top three talking points from Brett’s Loom,” and be able to get 80% very quickly.

Brett McKay: So another part of this planning aspect is using a work management tool to manage your work. So instead of using email or chat to manage the workflow, assigning tasks, you recommend using a tool. What are some examples of these work management tools? And how would you implement this into your system?

Nick Sonnenberg: Yeah. So we use Asana, but there’s Monday, there’s ClickUp, there’s a whole bunch of these tools. And there’s a lot of personal preference. But it answers the question, what do I need to do right now? What did I delegate that got done? What’s the status of this project? What’s the status of the goals that we care about? So it’s what’s going on with all the actual work. And if you can’t, within two clicks, be able to answer some basic questions like, what do I need to do today? What’s the status of this project? What’s the status of this goal? If you can’t in two clicks answer those questions, you probably have a huge opportunity to improve your internal efficiency.

Brett McKay: No, yeah, that makes sense. So instead of using email, trying to look through the email chain to figure out what am I supposed to do? And who’s doing what? You just have this system where here are the tasks, you assign people to different tasks, and the person can log in and it’s like, “What do I got to do today?” They got their to-do list right there in front of them.

Yeah. Back to the scavenger hunt, you might have 27 emails talking about one project. Then what happens when someone quits, and now you have to hire a new person and get them up to speed? What are you going to start doing, forwarding hundreds of emails? It’s pure chaos when you’re trying to manage your tasks, and hacking, essentially a communications tool for a project management or work management tool. I really believe every tool has a specific purpose. And what’s happening right now is there’s tool overload. You don’t want to have 100 tools ’cause that’s inefficient. But you also don’t want to take the extreme opposite end of the spectrum too, and just try to get by on text and email.

And that’s one of the most common things that we see in business. Text and email is quick, back to optimizing for speed of transfer versus retrieval. It’s quick, it’s simple. It’s just a couple of tools. And oftentimes, people will make the argument that that’s more efficient than Slack and Asana and all these things. So there’s a happy balance. And I don’t think companies need 100 tools, but I also don’t think that it’s right to hack email and text to do everything. It would be like me telling you, “Hey, your job is to chop trees.” And I’m not going to give you a chainsaw, you’ve got to do it with a Swiss Army knife, because we only use one tool in the company.

Brett McKay: And you can apply this idea of a work management tool to your personal life as well. Instead of managing the to-do’s in your family via the text message with your spouse, you can have a tool that… It could be Asana, it could be Todoist, where like here are the things and then you make assignments. And instead of having to go through those text chains to figure out what you’re supposed to do, you just look there at that dashboard and you’re all set. So let’s talk about the R in CPR; that’s resources. What do you mean by resources?

Nick Sonnenberg: That’s all about documenting your knowledge. So that’s your… SOP is your processes. So anything… We’re no longer in the days where you need that old school employee handbook that tells you about health insurance, vacation days, processes, core values. Now, there’s digital tools, like we use Coda, there’s Notion, there’s Confluence, there’s SharePoint, there’s a bunch of these tools, but you want to have a digital repository where people can log in and see in a clean way all the most up to date information. And again, back to this holistic framework, this is also going to help reduce all of the conversations and noise in the other tools because all the conversations about, “Hey, how do I onboard a new team member? I forgot the process.”

People should be able to self serve and look up for themselves how to do something if you have an up to date wiki. So anything that answers the question, who, what, when, where, why, that’s what I would call things that go into a wiki… Or an SOP processes answer the question how; so how do I onboard a new team member? How do I do payroll? That’s a sequence of steps that have to be done in a strategic order. But this is all intellectual property. So you’ve spent money figuring something out and it behooves you to capture that and store it somewhere so that if someone leaves, you’re not having to reinvent the wheel. Not only that, if you ever want to have an exit, your business is going to be worth more because you’ve made it more turnkey. Does that make sense?

Brett McKay: That makes sense. And you can apply this idea of like a resource bucket to your family life too, right? So something I’ve been doing the past few weeks is developing… We had a podcast guest, he was a butler. And he had this idea that all butlers have a butler book about the homes that they manage. And it just lists out all the information, like who are the service providers you need for air conditioning, electricity, plumbing, information about all the appliances in the home, serial numbers, and who you’re supposed to call, and when does it need to be maintained. And then you can also set sort of that wiki style thing. But then you can also develop SOP, standard operating procedures, where it’s like, “Here’s how you do specific things to run our household.” And this could come in handy. It reminded me of this book that was written in 1953, it was called, “Teach Your Wife to be a Widow.”

Nick Sonnenberg: Wow. What was that about?

Brett McKay: And it was all about, okay, let’s say you’re married, and you die. Would your wife be able to manage the bank account and the investments and all that stuff? ‘Cause maybe you did all that stuff. So you can develop like, “Okay. Here’s all the information you need for estate planning,” and you can develop SOP, standard operating procedures, like, “Here’s how you do this.” So you could do that in your family life too, develop a resource tool for your family, in case you’re not there.

Nick Sonnenberg: Totally. Look, all of the things that I’m talking about, I know that it’s more directly a business book and apply to business, but all of this also ties into personal life. I know people that have planned weddings in Asana. I believe in work-life integration, not balance, so I use Asana for all my personal tasks. These tools are so powerful now. I built an algorithm for my fantasy football draft in a coded doc. So there’s a lot of things personally that you can do with these. And then tying it back to email, we all have personal email addresses, so knowing how to get to Inbox Zero is helpful, not just for your work email, but same principles apply to your personal email.

Brett McKay: Okay. So when you’re trying to make things more efficient to reduce the scavenger hunt, think about your communications, use the tools that are designed for communication just for communication, use the tools that are designed for planning just for planning, and then use tools that are designed for resource management just for that. One thing I wanna talk about too, is I think a lot of times when managers or individuals think about doing things more efficiently, they typically think about major wins, like game-changing habits or practices that can save them hours of time. And some of the tools and methods we talked about today can do that. But you wrote this article for Time Magazine called “Saving Seconds is Better Than Hours.” And you say if you think about little, small things you can do, it really does add up. So give us some examples that showcase the power of saving a second.

Nick Sonnenberg: Yeah. This one sounds super silly, but you ever see that video where people are bouncing a ball and you have to count the ball bounces and then a gorilla comes in the middle and pounds the chest and people just don’t see the gorilla? It’s the same thing with these one, two, 10-second wins. People just aren’t looking for it. And oftentimes, there might be hundreds or thousands of one to 10-second time saving wins that ultimately add up to millions and millions of dollars, especially when you start thinking about this applied to the whole team. So one silly one is when we teach Inbox Zero, say there’s about a dozen tricks, one is keyboard shortcuts, and hitting the letter E, let’s say, to archive, instead of moving your mouse to the archive button, it might get you two seconds. So it doesn’t sound like a huge game changer. But for easy math, let’s say you get 60 emails a day, well, that’s two minutes a day. Five work days a week, that’s 10 minutes a week, that’s 40 minutes a month. Over the course of a year, that’s eight hours back a year just from the letter E for archive.

Now, if you’re a team of 10, that’s 80 man hours that you just got back. If the average hourly rate is $50 an hour on your team, that’s $4000 of productivity back, that can be reinvested in better uses. Probably not gonna change the world for you, but if we found a thousand of those, one by one, it’s slowly gonna start making a meaningful difference. So I really just think that every second counts, and you really wanna be thinking… Not just macro. Obviously, start with the lowest hanging fruit. Usually, teaching Inbox Zero is usually the lowest-hanging fruit. There’s probably some quick two to 10-hour time savings that we’ve talked about throughout this conversation. But once you get past that, really start thinking, “Hey, I just saved a second, but that’s gonna add up by the end of the year to $5000 for me.”

I was just at a smoothie restaurant, and this woman was peeling bananas, and this trash can was on the other side of the counter. Every banana she peeled, she had to go and walk 5 feet and throw the peel away, and she could have just moved the trash can over. And I was just thinking to myself like, “Man, that’s five seconds of banana. If she’s doing 100 bananas a day, that’s 500 seconds a day.” When you start adding it up and you start thinking about how many stores they have, those little things actually end up adding up to a meaningful difference. So I think it’s more of a mindset shift that people need to adopt.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You need to adopt a Frederick Winslow Taylor mindset to your life, Taylorism; that guy from the 19th century would analyze how manual laborers did things and how to be more efficient. You can do that with your digital work as well. When Katie, my wife, read your article about tab management, “If you just save a few seconds, it adds up in a year,” it inspired her to reduce the number of tabs she keeps open on her browser. Whenever I look at her browser, there’s probably 20 tabs, and I’m like, “How do you find what you need?” And she’s like, “I can’t. I have to spend a couple of seconds trying to figure out which tab I’m in.” And so she’s reduced the number of tabs. It’s just…

Nick Sonnenberg: That’s awesome.

Brett McKay: Three tabs, and it’s saved her some time. Another thing she did too, that she noticed that was sucking up a lot of time, wasn’t much in the moment, but it adds up, is she had her computer lock screen to come on after two minutes if she hadn’t been using it. And so every time she had to get back on her computer, she had to enter her password. And so she’s taken that off, ’cause she keeps the computer in her home all the time. It’s just not like anyone who shouldn’t be on there is having access to it. So that’s another way you can save time. You have some other recommendations in this article; use a password manager instead of trying to manually remember your passwords. I use LastPass, that saves me so much time.

Nick Sonnenberg: Yeah. Look, that’s a great one, the screen saver. And the thing with these things are, it’s not like you have a timer next to you and at the end of the year you’re gonna say, “Hey, congratulations. In your bank account, you just got $3700 back.” So that’s the challenge with it, but you just really have to train yourself to be aware. Something that she might like for the tabs, some people like Google Groups. I’ve been testing out a Chrome extension called Workona.

Brett McKay: Hmm. What does that do?

Nick Sonnenberg: It’s just another tab management organization tool, but it’s pretty cool. Check it out. You can… I have a finance tab, so I click that and then all my finance tabs come up.

Brett McKay: Oh, that’s cool.

Nick Sonnenberg: Yeah. Google Groups is starting to get pretty good too. Workona is just a little bit more robust, but Google Groups are free and fine tab groups.

Brett McKay: Okay. So use shortcuts. Yeah, shortcuts, email shortcuts or keyboard shortcuts, reduce the number of tabs, use these tab management apps, password manager. What’s some other stuff that I know sucks up a lot of my time? Just like…

Nick Sonnenberg: I think that another thing is just stacking. If you are… I don’t know. I make a protein shake in the mornings. I might listen to a podcast while I’m doing that, so I’m getting two things done at the same time. There’s small wins like that. If I can take a meeting… Instead of it being on my computer on Zoom, if I could take that on the phone and now I can do it while I’m on a walk or a bike ride, getting vitamin D, getting some exercise, that’s a win for me, so as much as I can stack. And then also, you should roughly have an idea of what the value of your time is. And any activity that you’re doing that you don’t like doing, that you could hire someone at a fraction of what your time is worth, you should just hire that person. So if you can hire someone to help you clean the house, and that’s far cheaper than what your hourly rate is and you hate cleaning the house, that might be something you wanna consider. I spend a lot of money on Ubers, but I’m able to get a lot more work done when I’m in an Uber versus, say, in the subway. So I’ll spend the extra bit of money because the value of the extra work I can produce while I’m in the Uber makes it worth that investment.

Brett McKay: Something I’ve been experimenting more with is using Siri on my phone. I imagine it’s only gonna get better with artificial intelligence, where you can tell your phone or your device to do something and they’ll be able to do really complex tasks. So I’ve been using Siri to add things to my Todoist when I’m on the go. Like I’m driving, I have an idea, I’m like, “Alright, Siri, add this to this project in Todoist list.” And I would say 90% of the time it works flawlessly, but then the other 10% of the time, she’s like, “I didn’t get that.” [chuckle] And then I’m like, “Siri, you’re so stupid.” And she’s like, “Don’t talk to me like that,” and I’m like, “Oh, I’m sorry, Siri.” [laughter] I imagine the voice stuff is only gonna get better, and that will just make it more efficient.

Nick Sonnenberg: ChatGPT now has a great voice. AI meeting note takers have become really popular. There’s a bazillion of them now. We’ve been testing both Fathom and one called Circleback. But something that you can do too, is you could just start a meeting with yourself and brain dump and then these tools will summarize it and create the action items for you.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I was thinking these tools can be useful if you’re trying to create that resource, the standard operating procedures, ’cause people think, “Well, I don’t want to have to go through all these tasks that I do, and write out, step one, you do this, step two, you do this.” You could actually just do the thing and just talk about it while you’re doing. It’s like, “Right now, I’m doing this,” and use one of those AI apps to create a transcript for yourself.

Nick Sonnenberg: Totally. There’s tools like, I believe, Tango, I haven’t used it, but it can record the screen of you doing something and then it can create the SOP for you.

Brett McKay: Oh, wow.

Nick Sonnenberg: We’re living in such an interesting time. And what we’re talking about today, I think the principles are going to… They’re gonna hold the test of time. I think we’re always gonna need those buckets. But the tools are gonna change. AI is going to be able to do more and more things. But if you wanna take advantage of everything that AI can do for you, AI is only gonna be useful and as good as the data that it’s going to be able to use to perform that task. So it’s really important that you have a strategy that is organizing data, and this CPR framework will be helpful for that. Because if you wanna start having all these AI bots magically doing things, it’s gonna need to be able to reference past information in a robust way to be able to do that task properly for you.

Brett McKay: Well, Nick, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Nick Sonnenberg: Yeah. So if you go to, that’s where you can find the book. And we have some special bonus resources for all your listeners. And then is the operational efficiency training platform that we have.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Nick Sonnenberg, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Nick Sonnenberg: Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Nick Sonnenberg. He’s the author of the book “Come Up For Air.” It’s available on You can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to our resources, we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives. And while you’re there, sign up for our newsletter. We have a weekly option and a daily option. They’re both free. It’s the best way to stay on top of what’s going on at AoM. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

Related Posts