When you think of your assets, you probably think of your money. But you also have three other hugely important assets at your disposal too: your time, energy, and priorities. When you manage these assets poorly, you can feel overwhelmed and scattered and yet unproductive and unfulfilled. When you manage them well, things in your personal and professional life click, and you experience traction and satisfaction.
How do you avoid the first situation and achieve the second? My guest today, Carey Nieuwhof, provides answers in his book At Your Best: How to Get Time, Priorities, and Energy Working in Your Favor. We begin our conversation with Carey’s story of achieving success, only to suffer burnout, and how burnout has become less of a job problem these days than a general life problem. We then talk about how to leave what Carey calls the “stress spiral” and get into the “thrive cycle.” We discuss the two mental shifts you need to make to better manage your time, how to keep other people (and yourself) from hijacking your priorities, the power of categorical decision-making in separating the good from the best, and why you need to put even your personal commitments on your calendar. We also talk about scheduling your daily tasks into what Carey calls your green, yellow, and red energy zones, and how to spend your time more strategically.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Podcast #369: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing With Daniel Pink
- AoM Podcast #450: How to Make Time for What Really Matters Every Day
- AoM Article: Create a Weekly Attack Plan
- AoM Article: How to Say No Without Sounding Like a Jerk
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now when you think of your assets, you probably think of your money, but you also have three other hugely important assets at your disposal too. Your time, energy and priorities. When you manage these assets poorly, you can feel overwhelmed and scattered, and get unproductive and unfulfilled. When you manage them well, things in your personal and professional life click and you experience traction and satisfaction. So how do you avoid the first situation and achieve the second? My guest today, Carey Nieuwhof, provides answers in his book, At Your Best: How to Get Time, Priorities and Energy Working in Your Favor. We begin our conversation with Carey’s story of achieving success only to suffer burnout, and how burnout has become less of a job problem these days, and a general life problem.
We then talk about how to leave what Carey calls the stress spiral and get into the thrive cycle. We discuss the two mental shifts you need to make to better manage your time, how to keep other people and yourself from hijacking your priorities, the power of categorical decision-making and separating the good from the best, and why you need to put even your personal commitments on your calendar. We also talk about scheduling your daily tasks and what Carey calls your green, yellow and red energy zones, and how to spend your time more strategically. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/atyourbest.
Alright, Carey Nieuwhof, welcome to the show.
Carey Nieuwhof: Hey, it’s great to be with you. Thanks so much for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you got a book out called At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy and Priorities Working in Your Favor. And this book talks about the changes you made in your life when you experienced some pretty massive burnout, in your career and in your personal life; it’s about 15 years ago.
Carey Nieuwhof: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Can you walk us through what led up to the burnout, and at what point did you realize, “Man, I got a problem and I gotta do something about this.”
Carey Nieuwhof: One of my problems was I didn’t realize I had a problem. [chuckle] And I think that’s how a lot of people get into the spiral of burnout, whatever degree it happens to be in. Yeah, so for me, I had been in leadership for about a decade, I was leading a very fast-growing not-for-profit organization, and I had a really terrible formula, and the formula was that the more growth I had, the more hours I had to work. And that doesn’t scale. It just doesn’t scale. I tend to be kind of a driven person, a strong-willed leader, strong-willed person, and I had convinced myself that I didn’t have any limits. That other people might have to sleep more, other people may have to take time off, but I didn’t really need to do it. Sort of a classic entrepreneurial mindset. And that worked for a long time. I had people warn me all through my 30s, they were like, “Hey, dude, if you keep working like this, you’re gonna burn out.” And I’m like, “No, that’s not gonna happen.”
And then what was the most shocking part of that for me was, in many ways, I was at the top of my game. I had just spoken to 2500 leaders in Atlanta at a major conference, it was like the biggest speaking event I had at that time to date in my life. We were growing really fast, and I thought, my life is fantastic. And then my body went on strike and I woke up one day and my usual passion was gone, and my thinking was not very clear, and I thought, “Oh, I like I gotta get some more sleep,” so I did. And what was worse is I just kept getting worse and worse. To the point where my passion was gone, my joy was gone. I thought, wow, maybe this is it, maybe this is the end the road for me. And I had brain fog like I’d never had before. So that’s how burnout hit me, and yeah, that’s… And I didn’t recognize the signs.
Brett McKay: I guess, was it sort of like the boiling frog, you didn’t recognize it as it was happening?
Carey Nieuwhof: Yeah. No, exactly. And then one day you’re dead. And looking back on it, I’m like, okay, I did not declare a finish line, so my body decided to. And that seems to be a more and more common story that you hear from leaders, is like, “I thought everything was okay,” or, “I thought it was normal.” Now, having lived the last 15 years a lot healthier, I can look back and say that level of fatigue is not normal. Like when you’re driving in your car for five minutes, you feel like you need to pull over at the side of the road and have a nap; that is not normal life. When you’re red-lining your emotions all the time… Or actually, you know, what was weird with my emotions, and this could be a clue for people to see how close they are to burn out, is I had found myself growing increasingly numb. I wasn’t feeling… Like life is a series of highs and lows, and as much as we’d all love to avoid the lows, you’re supposed to feel them. Like when somebody close to you gets sick, that is supposed to register in your heart. And conversely, when someone has some really good news, they broke some kind of sales record or maybe they’re expecting a child or something, you should feel happy for them.
And I was increasingly just experiencing life as going through the motions, and I was kind of numb. And then when my emotions would surface, they would often be not related to what they should be. So I’ve got two boys, if one of them was supposed to take out the trash, they didn’t take out the trash, I might melt down on them. And that’s a three out of 10 on the problem scale, but I treated it like a 12 out of 10. So there were signs at that point, but I just ignored them and blew through them, because I thought, well, the rules don’t apply to me. And of course they never apply to you until they do.
Brett McKay: So you said you were a leader of a non-profit organization, is this the church that you were leading?
Carey Nieuwhof: Mm-hmm. Yeah, so I was running a church at the time. I had originally trained as a lawyer, so I spent my 20s in university, which is a whole other story for another day, but went through the whole law thing, in the middle of law school felt a call into ministry, and ended up finishing law and then going into seminary. And I started at three very small, like handful of people, country churches, that really hadn’t changed in about 30 years. And then obviously new leadership brings change, and we became the fastest-growing church in our denomination in the country, and one of the largest in the country, in a period of about a decade. So it was that rocket ride that I was riding that just about killed me.
Brett McKay: Well, and you make this point in the book, like you are doing the thing that you wanted to do, right? You wanted to… This is something you were passionate, you felt called to. But the thing that you wanted to do was causing you burn out. And this is happening, this happens… You say this happens to a lot of people; people who, they’re doing the thing they love, they’re starting a business, they’re whatever, and that’s the thing that’s killing them. Like what’s going on there?
Carey Nieuwhof: Well, you know, it seems to be a human condition, yeah, because that’s really surprising, like from my own perspective as a person of faith. It’s like, how could any of this be bad? And I think that kind of got in my way, to be honest with you, because I thought, “Well, look, the church is growing like crazy. I can’t be unhealthy.” And of course, I was unhealthy. But it also reminded me of what I saw in law. I went to law school, I worked in downtown Toronto for a year, I’m Canadian, and I worked in the financial sector. So I saw law at what you might call the top of the game, right, like Wall Street law, kind of thing. And what I noticed there is all these people had dream jobs, my colleagues and the people I was working with for that year had dream jobs, and most of them hated it. Like they had the house, they had the… I remember one guy had a horse farm in the country, and every day or every week he would buy a lottery ticket, walk it into the firm… Of course, I’m in my mid-20s at that point. He’d wave it in my face and he goes, “Carey, if I ever win this lottery, I’m out of here; you’ll never see my face again.”
And I thought, “Really? This is like the pinnacle of success, right? If you’re gonna do law, this is near the top of the food chain, and you hate the life you built, like, what is that?” And then I began to run into that same kind of thing in ministry, and I’ve seen that in so many people’s lives, it’s just the stress gets to you and you don’t have a formula for how to deal with it. And success can leave you feeling empty on the inside or burned out.
Brett McKay: What do you think is the nature of the type of work that causes burnout. ‘Cause I know that pastoral burnout is pretty common…
Carey Nieuwhof: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I can see lawyer burn… I know that. And then there’s caregiver burnout, like nurses, doctors, people…
Carey Nieuwhof: Right.
Brett McKay: Is it like, is if you’re dealing with people, is that what causes burnout? ‘Cause I look at all those jobs, you just deal with a lot of people in difficult situations all the time, that makes sense you would get burn out.
Carey Nieuwhof: Oh, for sure. In ministry, I mean, it’s really hard to say no to people. People you love, people you care about. We were navigating 30% growth year after year for a number of years, so there was just a run. I’ve heard, I don’t know how true this is, that 15% growth is scalable, like you can handle that; anything above that becomes difficult to manage. I was finding it difficult to manage at that point. I don’t know, it is endemic to certain careers, for sure. Burnout, as I understand, the origin of the term was originally a term to describe the feeling that doctors had in the 1970s. It was like, “I feel burned out, I’ve got compassion fatigue, I’ve got too many hours.” And the stories you have from the internships of doctors and the residencies are just crazy. And you do know a lot of burned out lawyers, it’s easy to get cynical.
But what I’m noticing, and I don’t know whether you’d agree with this or whether you see this or not, Brett, in your work, but I’m seeing it move from like a work condition to a life condition in the last decade. I meet burned-out people everywhere. I meet them in helping professions, I meet them in other jobs, I meet them online, I meet them… Stay-at-home parents feel burned out. I’ve met retired people who are struggling with overwhelm, and I’m like, “Woah, what’s going on?” I think technology maybe had a role in that. And I’m a fan of technology, I’m a podcaster like you are, I run a digital company, but for the first time in history, for the last 15 years, we’re having to deal with being on call 24/7, with devices in our pockets that give the world access to us. I don’t know that we’re built to handle that kind of scale of communication and access. So I see it expanding. And I’ve also seen some very happy lawyers, some very satisfied pastors. My last 15 years, totally different story than the first 10 years in leadership. But yeah, that could definitely be an issue, but I see it as pretty widespread now.
Brett McKay: Something else you talk about in the book, when you started this burnout, you didn’t know… You didn’t recognize you were burnt out right away, but you did notice there’s a lot of stress, and I’m just… It’s crazy town, things are growing fast, and you would start telling yourself these excuses of what’s going on here. And one of them was, “Well, this is just a season. We get through this, we get through this year and things will level off and be better.” And you get to the end of the year and it just got crazier. Any other excuses you found yourself telling yourself as you started experiencing this increased level of stress?
Carey Nieuwhof: Yeah, that was… It could be a whole podcast. I had all kinds of reasons. And I had that; fortunately, I have good friends and good family, and they would say, “What’s new with you, Carey?” I’m like, “Well, I’m flying here, flying there, I’m writing this book, or whatever. Things are really busy. It’s just a busy season.” And eventually they started calling me on it, and I realized, oh, like seasons have beginnings and endings, and if your season has no ending it’s not a season, it’s your life. So I got called out on that one. Another lie I think I probably bought into, or an excuse I told myself is, “This is the price of success, if you wanna have something that’s growing quickly and you want to accomplish your mission, it’s gonna cost you personally.” I don’t believe that anymore, but I fell for that hook, line and sinker. And, yeah, those are a couple of lies I believed. The other thing I really struggled with was I had a sense of time famine, and I lived in this imaginary world where I thought, “If I can only have more time, if I can only have more time. And I just don’t have enough time to get a proper day off, I just don’t have enough time.”
And I think the answer for me was always around the corner. Like, one more hire or one more season, or if I can just get to Christmas vacation, then I will be better. And of course that never solves the problem. The problem was internal, the problem was the way that I was approaching leadership and the way that I was stewarding this life I had been given. And once I’d fixed that, all the problems… Well, those problems seem to go away.
Brett McKay: Yeah, once you get to Christmas vacation, then Christmas vacation is crazy busy, ’cause you got all the holiday stuff you’re doing.
Carey Nieuwhof: And then you’re living for spring break, right?
Brett McKay: Yeah, then you’re living for spring… Then you get to like… But then you live for those moments and you have to do a lot of work before you take the break, and then you can kind of enjoy your break, and then when you get back there’s all this work that’s built up because you’ve taken a break, and then you just have to work like the Dickens to catch up on your work. It’s… Yeah, alright. So yeah, that’s an excuse, you gotta get out, this is… You just gotta accept that this is the normal, this is the norm, I’ve got stuff, things are out of control, I need to get a handle on it. Let’s talk about first how we get on that pathway towards burnout. And you argue that it’s all because we hop on what you call the stress spiral. And there’s stages to this. What’s the on-ramp? What gets us on to this downward stress spiral?
Carey Nieuwhof: I tried to put my finger, when I was writing the book, I tried to put my finger on the condition that so many people find themselves in, and I named it the stress spiral. And the stress spiral is really three conditions we find ourselves in: Overwhelmed, overworked and over-committed. And I would say the majority of leaders I interact with these days, and the majority of people I know in my life, would identify with two or three out of the three. I feel overwhelmed. I feel over-committed, I’ve said yes to too many things. And I’m over-worked, I’m putting in too many hours doing whatever I do. And how do you get there? Well, I think you get into the stress spiral, as I really thought about it, there are three primary assets all of us are handling every single day, no matter what your life situation is. Time, energy, and priorities. On a vacation, you’re dealing with that; how are we gonna spend the day? What’s the most important thing to do? Do we go out for breakfast? Do we eat in? Do you think we have time for a round of golf today? Or, so and so wants us to do X.
So it’s time. Energy… I’m pretty tired today. I don’t know whether I can do 18 holes, or at least maybe we better get a cart, right? Or priorities. So even on vacation you’re dealing with that. And at work, that’s what you’re dealing with. And in life, in normal life you’re dealing with that all the time. And when I began to look back on the period leading into burn out, I noticed that my time was unfocused, I spent it very randomly, usually in a reactive mode to whatever was happening in the moment. My energy levels I was really unaware of, other than most of the time I felt tired. And then the priorities that I was dealing with, I just let other people hijack my priorities all the time. And so when you have unfocused time, un-leveraged energy and hijacked priorities, you end up feeling overwhelmed, over-worked and over-committed, and hence you’re in the stress spiral.
Brett McKay: So this unfocused time, you said you were reactive, would you just walk in the office, look at your inbox and let your inbox dictate what you would spend your time on?
Carey Nieuwhof: Totally, I let everybody… Knocks on the door, inboxes, texting was becoming a thing in 2006. And again, rapidly growing organization, everybody wants to meet with you and you wanna meet with everybody. And then of course, in ministry, in a helping profession, you’re dealing with a lot of crises. I was talking to a pastor the other day who said his Saturday got blown up by two families that were in crisis. And of course, what I’ve learned is when your marriage is falling apart, that didn’t happen on a Friday night and now you need help on Saturday, your marriage has been falling apart for years. So perhaps I can’t meet you on my day off, but maybe I can meet you next Tuesday at 3 o’clock. But I didn’t know that back then, so I just let other people determine how I spent my day. And then the really stressful part of that is like, now I run a digital communications company, but back when I was working at a church and leading a church, there was a message due almost every Sunday. And so I had to show up with something fresh to say, something faithful to say, and something marginally creative, so that it engaged people’s attention.
And again, when you lead a larger church, preaching is an awful lot of the formula for why people come, and so I had that pressure. And when I let other people hijack my mornings, my afternoons, that left late afternoon for me trying to come up with something I was gonna say on the weekend. And of course then that always bled into the evenings and into days off, so it was just a mess.
Brett McKay: And this is going back to this working not in align with your energies, sometimes you just work on these really hard… Like writing a sermon, for example, something that’s really creative, requires a lot of thought, a lot of energy, and you’d have to work on that when you weren’t feeling that. And sometimes it would end up subpar.
Carey Nieuwhof: Exactly, yeah. In the stress spiral, un-leveraged energy is something I had to think about as I got healthier, because I realized my energy, even on my best days, when I’m fully rested, I’m healthy, I’m feeling good, I’m not burned out, it waxes and wanes over the course of a day. And everybody who’s listening to this knows that, because you’ve identified yourself at some point as a night owl or a morning person, or Daniel Pink would argue a lot of people really peak midday, let’s say between 10:00 and 2:00, or they’re afternoon people, but there’s a percentage of people who are morning people. Do you have a bias one way or the other, like would you say you’re a morning person, Brett, or night owl, or…
Brett McKay: I would say morning person, like late morning. That’s when I get my best work done.
Carey Nieuwhof: So your peak hours would be what, after 9:00 or?
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’d say after 9:00. So between, yeah, 9:00 and 11:00… 9:00 and 12:00, I would say would be my best hours.
Carey Nieuwhof: Okay. You know what you just did? You just confirmed science.
Brett McKay: Oh wow.
Carey Nieuwhof: And I lived in my 30s as though I had 12 peak hours in a day, and nobody does that. Maybe a robot does, or your car can run for 12 hours at a certain speed, but human beings can’t. And you’ve just affirmed what I discovered the hard way. You get about three to five peak hours in a day, where your energy is at its best, where you have no brain fog or very little, and you’re feeling great, and the ideas flow. If you’re a writer, you produce your best content in that time. If you’re working on strategy, your thinking is clear, you’re able to map out the future. If you’re working on spreadsheets, you just haven’t got that many errors, or maybe you came up with a really creative pivot table that you haven’t thought of before. That’s about three to five hours where your energy is at its peak, and then all of us end up with an hour or two in a typical day where we’re kind of dragging. For me, that’s between four and six in the afternoon. Do you have an hour or two where you’re like, “Yeah, I either need a nap or I need to go for a run or something?”
Brett McKay: Yeah, like three, between 3:00 and 5:00, that’s when I usually do my work out. It’s like 4:30 time.
Carey Nieuwhof: Very typical. And a really good use of your workout zone, I know that’s important to you, but are you training for the Olympics? Probably not.
Brett McKay: No. No.
Carey Nieuwhof: So you don’t need to take your prime time to do your workouts. A lot of morning people still work out in the morning, and if that really helps you be more productive, awesome, but I’ve moved my exercise to the late afternoon, ’cause otherwise I either wanna have a nap, or I want to… I wanna get moving my body so that I sort of get re-energized for the evening. So what I discovered with that time is I was spending it really un-strategically wasting my best hours of the day where I could produce the best content that I was capable of producing, and often putting it off till the late afternoon when I was already tired, over-caffeinated, and when I didn’t feel like doing it anymore, and it just created this stress spiral that led me further and further and eventually into burnout.
Brett McKay: And I wanna talk more about how we can leverage our energy, and part of that is getting on what you call the thrive cycle, which is the opposite of the stress cycle. And the first step of getting on the thrive cycle is focusing your time instead of having unfocused time. And you argue the first step in focusing your time is you have to make two critical mental shifts about time if you wanna do a better job managing your time. So what are those two mental shifts?
Carey Nieuwhof: Well, the first mental shift I made was I had to get past my excuses, which we’ve hinted at already. And my excuse was, I don’t have the time for that. And I read this little book, I don’t think it’s even in print anymore, and I don’t remember where I got it or even what the title is, but it was about, What is your life like if you’re the President of the United States? I think it was written for eighth graders, I don’t know how I ended up reading it. It was probably a bad season in my life. But it was really fascinating, and I remember having this a-ha moment, where I thought the President of the United States gets as many hours in the day as any other human being, and he, or maybe in the future, she, has to at that point govern the free world with that same 24 hours in a day that I get. And it made me think about all the really successful leaders I admire, and the very best, they make you feel… They’re never in a rush, they have all the time in the world for you, they really pay attention to you, and they might be running 20 companies, but you’d never know it. They’re not frantic.
And I started calling myself out on my speech, and auditing my speech, and I made myself stop saying things like, “I don’t have the time to do that.” Because I realized I did. All through my 30s, people said, “Carey, you gotta write a book, you gotta write a book.” And I would always say, “I don’t have the time for that, I don’t have the time for that.” Well, since I burned out, I’ve written five books over the last decade. And I had the time for it, I just wasn’t taking it. I also got rid of my excuse language when it came to, “Sorry, I couldn’t get that done.” Well, actually, I could have gotten it done, I chose not to. And when I got honest with myself, it really made me come to terms with how I was squandering time. And then the second shift I made when it comes to time management… And these are easy to recognize and to understand, very difficult to do, but I would say, just to wrap up the first one before we dive fully into the second one, is stop saying you don’t have the time, start admitting to yourself you didn’t make it.
Now that’s really hard, but if you’re consistently for a month not making the time to work out, that tells you something about your priorities. Or if your mom’s been saying, “Hey, when are you gonna call me?” And for a month, you haven’t called your mom because you’re telling yourself, I don’t have the time, I don’t have the time, I don’t have the time… Well, really? You haven’t had like 20 minutes to call your mom in the last month? Like it makes you get really honest with yourself. And then the second mental shift was to decide to abandon balance and embrace passion. I had thought about balance as a life goal for a long time, and probably put it on my New Year’s resolutions on different years, and then I began to look at balanced people, very few people claim to have achieved balance, but when I saw it, it started to bother me. Because in the lives of the people I knew who would say, “Hey, I’m really balanced,” it seems like their balance was a retreat. They kept stepping back; I’m doing less work, I’m doing less of this, I’m doing less of that. And as I thought about it, I thought, “You know what, I don’t wanna do less with my life, I wanna make a difference.” And so I decided to abandon balance and embrace passion. That whatever I allow on my calendar, whatever I allow, if I’m gonna preach on the weekend, I’m gonna do a killer job; if I’m gonna do this interview, I’m gonna walk in prepared.
If I’m gonna have a date night with my wife, and we’ve been married for decades, I’m gonna show up fully present; if I’m spending a day with my sons who are now grown, I’m gonna be there, not like half on my phone. So I just decided, whatever I allow in my life, which is a minority of the opportunities that I have, I’m just gonna be fully present and I’m gonna do it passionately, and that has made a huge difference. And, by the way, that also applies to time off. If I’m gonna vacation, I’m gonna vacation. If I’m gonna sleep for eight hours, I’m not gonna apologize for it, I’m gonna sleep passionately, I’m gonna get a great night’s sleep so I can hit the ground running the next day. So those were two really helpful ways to think about time and how to approach time. “I’ve got the time. If I didn’t do it, I just didn’t make it. And then whatever I allow myself to do, I’m gonna do passionately.”
Brett McKay: And I imagine what that did is it made you pickier about the things you committed to.
Carey Nieuwhof: Way pickier, way pickier. And it got me to the point where I thought, “I’m just not gonna say yes.” And this is still hard. If you’re looking at an active thing I have to work on daily, like you, I get far more opportunities than I have time available to do them. Just this morning I got a text from a friend, “Hey, you wanna be on my podcast?” I asked my staff, they said, “Well, you’re booking three months in advance.” So I had to let them know, “No, I can’t do it.” And old me would have found a crack in the calendar and would have said, “Yeah, I can do that with you,” and my assistant said, “But, Carey, you need to write a really good article for next week, and you got a book launch coming up, and you got this coming up, and you got that coming up, you really can’t do it.” So yeah, that allows me to be fully present for this interview as well.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. Well, so this focusing your time is very connected to hijacking, or preventing hijack of your priorities. So there’s an example, you have these filters in place, that you’ve put in place for yourself, where it makes it harder for other people to hijack your priorities. Any other tips that you found that are useful to prevent that from happening?
Carey Nieuwhof: One hijack priority person is you. You are a good hijacker of your own priorities. I know I am. Because I can be completely un-distracted. So let’s say I recognize I’ve got those peak energy times, which mine are about 7:00 to 11:00 AM, and I’m gonna work on a really big article for a major publication. I am fully capable of distracting myself. I may have put the world at bay and said, “You guys stay away,” and they stay away, and next thing you know I’m five videos into a YouTube wormhole that I can’t get out of. Or I get bored. We’re getting addicted to being constantly connected to other people. So I think you can hijack your own priorities, so I encourage… And this is not new advice, but I encourage everyone, turn off all notifications on all of your devices. And a shocking number of people have never done that. And you can program a few people to ring through… I have some favorites on my iPhone that can get to me any time, but they’re the kinds of people that tend not to interrupt me on a constant basis, or they wouldn’t be a favorite. So if you’re worried about your daughter, well your daughter can phone through, that’s fine, but if she’s interrupting you five times a day, you can have a conversation with her about that. So you have to watch your own distractions. Another one definitely is people.
People can be a huge distraction. And there’s a principle, I think, for how you manage your time, which I hope helps a lot of people, and it’s simply that the wrong people will always ask for your time, and the right people never will. Maybe your spouse, if you’re married, or your partner, wishes that they could spend more time with you, or your kids wish they could spend more time with you, or you haven’t talked to your best friend in a little while; they’re rarely going to be as persistent as some of the chronic under-performers at work, or the people whose lives are constantly in crisis. So again, being in ministry, we had crises almost every day. And what I learned over time, and this is hard, but people who are in the helping profession will probably realize this, there are some people who actually do not wanna get well, and they will suck your time. So sometimes it’s the people who always have a new crisis in their life, it’s like, well, last week it was this, but this week it’s this, and they wanna see you and they wanna see you this morning, and they wanna see you on their schedule. And I had to learn that probably that is not the best use of their time and not the best use of my time.
Psychologist John Townsend says people like that sometimes have a flat learning curve, they just want your time but they don’t wanna get better. Another thing you’ll do as a boss, and I’ve been a boss for over two decades, is you’ll say, “Well, I gotta spend time with my low performers,” the staff member who’s always late, or somebody who just can never hit their targets. “You’re really not doing very well at this job, so I gotta meet with you again.” And you owe that to everyone once or twice, but the reality is there’s probably some people in your life that you’ve been meeting with now for months about being late and they’re still late, or the people who never hit their quotas, and you gotta ask yourself, is that the best use of your time? Because number one, those meetings are draining. Number two, you’re not helped by it. And number three, neither are they. And if they’re looking for a way to improve their lives, you’re probably not the coach that’s going to help them do it.
So what I’ve had to do over the last 15 years is make sure, yeah, I’ll meet any team member anybody wants, but if my coaching isn’t making them better, why do I keep coming back to that week after week after week? When I cleared all of that off of my calendar, first of all, I had way fewer meetings, secondly I then started to call up some of the best people in my life, like the top performers; who is your best salesperson, who’s your best vice president, who is your best associate pastor, who is your best whatever, and meet with them. ‘Cause they’re not asking for your time. And they’re doing a great job doing what they’re doing, but what I’ve learned is those meetings are almost always energizing, number two, everybody gets better, so your mission actually gets accomplished, and number three, they really appreciate it and will lean in even harder. And you should do the same with the most important people in your life, with your family, with your best friends, with the people who are really producing well, it creates kind of a virtuous loop, a virtuous cycle.
Brett McKay: How do you handle all this about those people who come to you for help, they’re just struggling and you keep meeting with them and nothing seems to get better, how do you tell them, “This isn’t… I can’t do this anymore,” in a way that’s, I guess, compassionate is the right word? ‘Cause obviously they’re struggling, and they’re hurting and they need something, so how do you say, “This isn’t the best thing for either of us,” what does that look like?
Carey Nieuwhof: Yeah, it’s hard. It never gets easy. But what I would typically do, it’s not that different from your question, is to sit down with them and say, “You know, I really appreciate meeting with you. Clearly you’ve got a lot going on. I am not sure that I’m the person who’s gonna be able to help you with that.” So I did go to seminary as well as law school, and I’m not a counselor, I don’t have a doctorate in that, and so what I would often do in a case like that, and of course as our church got bigger into the thousands, I had to start referring people almost immediately to trained professional counselors, but that would be one thing. And that happens in business too, right, where sometimes you’re meeting with people and you realize, “I’m not really helping them with that.” And if that’s the case, you can get them professional help, you can do an outside referral, or maybe there’s somebody else in the firm or someone else in the organization that is better positioned for that, but I started to have that conversation, and I would just say, “I don’t have the tool kit to fix your marriage.
That’s not what I trained for. I can preach a decent sermon… ” And I would often tell people, “I can counsel a 1000 people on the weekend, I’m just not very good at doing it one-on-one.” And most people got that, most people understood that. When it comes to low performers at work, if you are not seeing results, that’s the time where perhaps you don’t have the right fit. It’s that adage of hire slowly and fire quickly. And as much as we hate firing people, I had to do that once or twice at the church, I’ve done that on occasion in my company, but sometimes we get it wrong on the hiring or the skill set isn’t right. And I’ve learned to do that a lot better over the last 15 years, but if you do it well and you do it compassionately, usually a year down the road they’re better off and so are you, because it wasn’t the right fit for them. And if you can help them see it, then that’s great. Or alternatively, perhaps you’re not the coach to bring that out in them. Maybe there’s someone else in the company, an outside person, who really can motivate them to show up on time and create better habits, but you’re not doing it.
So I think when you start to… When it starts to feel like that movie Groundhog Day, you know, where it’s just the same thing happening over and over again, that’s a clue that that is not a healthy relationship, and it’s probably time for you to spend your time doing other things.
Brett McKay: And besides managing people who, they just… They take a lot of your time and energy and resources, the other problem with managing your priorities is that you might have so many good opportunities presented to you that if you say yes to all of them, you just over-extend yourself. So how do you, one, figure out, okay, what is the thing I should say yes to? And then, two, how do you say no to opportunities without sounding like a jerk or snooty or whatever?
Carey Nieuwhof: It’s easy to sound like a jerk, it’s not hard at all to do, so you gotta be really, really careful. And that’s a situation we find ourselves in, like our content that I write and produce gets accessed over a million times a month, which is insane when you say that out loud, but just imagine the inbound that comes in, as it would for your show, Brett. It’s crazy sometimes when you see the inbound, and I’m really grateful for it, but yeah, like most leaders listening to this, whether you lead something small or large, you have more opportunity than you have time available. That’s just life. Too many people wanna do things with you, and that’s a good problem to have. So a couple of things. One thing that is kind of a secret hidden power is the power of categorical decision-making; that you will start to see patterns in your invitation that comes in. So I get a lot of speaking requests, and we’ve been able to pinhole some speaking engagements that I’ll always say yes to, and increasingly a number I’ll almost always say no to unless there’s a very compelling reason.
So, for example, I tend to speak to leaders rather than just general audiences. Which means, counter-intuitively, I’d rather speak to 100 leaders than 1000 generally assembled people. Why? Because I think the leaders are gonna have a bigger impact down the road. So as a leadership event, that’s a categorical decision. Much simpler examples could be when I was leading a growing church, I decided I don’t do weddings. Which seems really weird. It’s like, you’re a pastor, you should do weddings. Well, I didn’t because it wasn’t the secret to the growth in our ministry and the life change we were seeing. Secondly, they almost always happened on a Saturday, and that was my family day, I had two sons who were at home at the time, and a wife I love very much, and I didn’t wanna spend every Saturday out doing weddings for people I barely knew. And third, we set up a system where we had outside referrals they could go to, so that made it easy. And people would sometimes say, “Well, that’s not fair. You don’t do weddings, you’re a pastor.” And I would make exceptions. So if you were in my family, or you worked for me, you were my assistant, I would do your weddings, and if people didn’t like that, I’m like, “Well, you can marry into my family or become my assistant and then I’ll do your wedding, but otherwise it’s not gonna work, it just doesn’t scale.” And so I think that helps.
Another example of categorical decisions, you’ve seen this in Mark Zuckerberg, and used to see it in Steve Jobs, they wear the same thing every day. What is that? It’s one less decision they have to make. So what are the decisions you can make right now that are kind of pre-decided. So another classic example that’s really easy to implement, because I’m best in the mornings, I stop… When I realized that, I stopped doing breakfast meetings. Breakfast meetings were generally not the most strategic thing I was doing with my time anyway, I could easily flip them to afternoon coffees or lunches, and then I got my writing done in the morning, which is one of the most important things I do, as well as my vision casting and planning and strategizing, got that done in the morning. And so if people ask me for a breakfast meetings. “It’s not personal, Brett, I just don’t do breakfast meetings.” “Oh, okay.” And most people get that. So those are some categorical decisions. And then how do you do it so it doesn’t sound mean? Well, if it’s a category, that helps, it’s like, “I’m sorry, I’m just not available for breakfast meetings,” so that’s one way to do it. The other thing I would do is I would be very kind in the way you do it. So I joke with my staff all the time that basically I pay some of them to say no all day and that’s what they do.
And so it sounds like this. “Man, I’m so honored you would ask Carey to do your event. Thank you so much. It looks like you’re up to some really great stuff. Unfortunately, given our present commitments, we’re not able to say yes, but we really appreciate you asking. If there’s any other way we can help, please let us know. Carey.” Something like that. That’s what I think you can frame it in such a way, ’cause it is a privilege, and you gotta be sincere; if I don’t wanna do the event, I wouldn’t phrase it that way, but the reality is I would like to do almost everything that comes my way. I like people, I can’t believe I get to do what I do, people are good, they have wonderful things that we’d love to be a part of. But in order for me to do the things that I do that seem to move our mission forward, the podcast that I host, the writing that I do, the speaking I accept, I have to be focused on that rather than on some of the other priorities that come our way.
Brett McKay: One thing I wanna point out too, is when you say like, “Hey, I have a commitment that I’ve already made.” That doesn’t necessarily have to be a work commitment, it could be a personal or a family commitment too.
Carey Nieuwhof: Bingo! That used to… I was coaching a leader this week who got stuck on a Saturday, which was his day off, and he’s got five kids, so that’s a serious investment, and they’re all at home still, none is in college. And I used to get caught on that all the time, and so this Thrive calendar, which is part of the system that I talk about in At Your Best basically, gives an assignment to all of your time. So, if you look at my Saturday, I have a recurring appointment every Saturday that says, “family time.” Now, right now at this stage of life family is my wife and I, and sometimes we see our kids on the weekend and friends, but that way if you come up to me and corner me at a party or something, you say, “Carey, what are you doing this Saturday?” I can pull out my phone and go, “Oh, I’ve got a commitment. Why, what’s up?” And then most reasonable people leave it at that point. I got pigeonholed into so many things that I ended up doing on a Saturday that I didn’t wanna do because I had nothing in my calendar.
Friday night’s date night with my wife. We usually were involved with a small group with our church, so that goes into the calendar, and then, Saturday-Sunday afternoon for years, just said, “Rest and refuel,” on my calendar. So if you’re like, “What are you doing Sunday?” It’s like I got a commitment, but I needed that to do Monday well, so yeah, you can totally program that right into your calendar, just set up recurring appointments. I’ve actually got a free calendar download that can do that for you, just set it up once and then it’s done, and then if you wanna break your own rule, go ahead. If it’s a really great opportunity and you wanna give up a Saturday, you can always say, “Well, you know what? I can change my plans and I’ll do that on Saturday with you,” but for the most part, that gives you an out and it makes sure that the people that you care about the most get the best of your time because they’re always the victims. When you squander your time, the people you care about most are always the victims of your squandering of that time.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that’s an important mind shift to happen and people like you treat your personal commitments the same way you treat a work commitment or even like a doctor’s appointment, ’cause I think oftentimes, we think personal commitment is like, “Well, it’s not that important.” And so you can be like, “Well, you have… Yeah, I can do that thing,” but that takes away time from your family.
Carey Nieuwhof: Well, and blank space on your calendar is a trap. It looks like freedom, but it’s really jail disguised as liberty, and I would encourage you when you’re listening to this, as long as you’re not driving and you can do it safely, pull out your calendar right now and look, three months ahead. Chances are, what you’ll see is a whole lot of white space on your calendar and you think, “Oh, good, like December is gonna be amazing,” or “February’s gonna be fantastic.” And then you get to February or December, it’s no better than it was right now, and you’re overwhelmed, over-committed and overworked. If you make some pre-decisions about how you’re gonna spend that time now, that Saturday’s always gonna be Family Day, and Sunday’s gonna be games day and, Monday night, I’m gonna take some personal time to do a hobby, and Tuesday night we’re gonna get together with friends, and Wednesday night I’m going to bed early because Thursday is always a meat grinder. If you put that in your calendar and you program it, you’re gonna start to live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow, and I think most people… You’re exactly right, Brett. They don’t feel that they have permission to do that, you have permission.
Brett McKay: Alright, so we’ve talked about focusing your time, we’ve talked about managing your priorities better and making sure other people don’t hijack your priorities and you stay on top of that. Let’s talk about the energy. We’ve been flitting about it throughout our conversation, so you make a big point is that you need to get an idea of when are your energy levels the best during the day and do your most important work then.
Carey Nieuwhof: Yeah, everybody’s gonna have a slightly different time window… Yours is 9:00 till noon, mine is about 7:00 to 11:00. And that’s on a good day. Sometimes it’s like 7:00 till 10:00, that’s all I got. We’re not robots, but you will have three to five peak hours in the day and everyone from David Allen to Cal Newport to others, and the brain research that’s been done shows that it really maxes out at about four or five hours, so you’re not gonna get eight, but figure out when that is, and if you’re a night owl… It could be 8:00 PM to 11:00 PM. I’m not gonna argue with that. If that’s when you’re at your best, pay attention to that, so I call that your green zone. Your red zone is what we’ve already touched on, that’s when you’re tired, you need a nap, you need more caffeine, you’ve got toothpicks to keep your eyes open, you got ’em poached between your eyelids. That thing. And you’re just tired. And then everything in between is what I call yellow zone. You’re not at your best, you’re not at your worst, and so what I would do is give every one of those zones a main task every day.
So for me, I’m a writer, and I also do podcasting, so it’s interview preparation, and it’s also original writing that I do in my green zone. I do almost no meetings because I can do those fairly well in my yellow zone. And my red zone, that’s what you should assign to your least important tasks or something like a workout. Again, if you’re not training for a big event where you’re a professional athlete, your red zone is fine for working out. It’s gonna rejuvenate you, it’s gonna make you feel better or take a nap, or do something routine, like just empty your inbox or fill out that expense report and get it in, something that isn’t going to take a lot of original cognitive energy, and then your yellow zone is for everything else, and so you have green, yellow, red, and the most important thing in managing your energy, and this is where I started to see exponential returns because the irony in my story is I’m leading 10X what I was when I burned out and I feel like I have more time.
I feel like I’ve got more energy and it’s because I protected that green zone. It was canceling breakfast meetings, it was not allowing other people to interfere with that green zone, so I could get the message written when I was still leading a church, so I could get that article done, so I could get the book edited, so I could think strategically about where we’re heading in the next few years as a communications company. Occasionally, I will bring in some team members, we’ll do some really important brainstorming in those morning hours so we can move the needle on our mission, and when I protected that time, it began to produce exponential returns.
The other thing I would say about your green zone, because when your energy is at its peak, don’t just move through your task list. Yeah, you probably got some catching up to do, but you’ve gotta start developing your giftedness. If you wanna be a communicator, that’s when you start looking at TED Talks and watching TED talks or reading a book on how to become a better communicator. If you’re a lawyer, that’s where you study cross-examination techniques or read up on the latest case law, so you’re not just prepping for that next day in court, but you’re actually becoming a better litigator, and it’s like Malcom Gladwell’s rule that the way to become world class at something is to spend 10,000 hours doing it, and an hour a day in your green zone spent developing, to thinking, to exploring, to developing that gift will make you better and better. You won’t notice a difference right away, but give yourself six months and then give yourself six years and you’ll be astonished at your development as a person, because what happens is, if you don’t protect that time and you don’t do that, again, you’re doing your most important work, we’ve got…
Cause nobody ever emailed you to do your most important work. They’re asking you to do what is most important to them, so you get to that at 4 o’clock, you’re half brain dead, and you’re never spending time developing your gift; you’re just using it. So when I started doing that with my green zone, and then leaving the medium important stuff to the yellow zone and the least important stuff to the red zone, that’s where I’ve seen productivity soar and I’ve had the privilege of training thousands of leaders in the system. They’ve seen very similar results, so it’s a breakthrough for a lot of people.
Brett McKay: I’m sure there’s people listening to this thing, thinking, “This all sounds great, but I’m not my own boss, I’m not the CEO, so I don’t have much control over my schedule, so how can I take advantage of this green zone, yellow zone, red zone framework if I can’t make my schedule?”
Carey Nieuwhof: It’s a great question, I hear it all the time. So let’s break that down a little bit. First of all, think about an entire week. It’s 168 hours in a week, a work week tends to be about 40 of those, so you’ve actually got ridiculous control over 128 hours in the week. You can determine your boss isn’t telling you when to go to bed. There’s no law that says the kids have to be enrolled in sports seven nights a week, those are all choices, and if you’re finding you’re overwhelmed… And this is what’s really interesting, because having run healthier organizations for the last 10 years, I’m realizing in coaching my own staff that a lot of them are realizing, “Oh, the overwhelm isn’t coming from work anymore, it’s coming from life,” so take a look at those choices. Are they really working for you, or are they working against you? And my wife and I have raised two boys, they’re in their 20s, and we had a rule back in the day where we just said, “You can each enroll in one sport at a time and one music lesson at a time,” so we had one son who is very musical, wanted to do drums and keyboard and guitar and everything.
We said, “One at a time,” and so he did one at a time, and as a teenager when he wanted to take up drums and we said, “Well, that’ll be on your dime and on your time, ’cause we’re committed to other things,” he taught himself how to play the drums, they get ingenious, and then another son loved sports and wanted to do everything, and we said, “Well, when hockey season is over, we can play football. When football’s over, we can play soccer,” and so we just did one at a time, and we found that was like a choice that really worked for us, so you have a lot of agency in your life, but now let’s talk about work. So you have 40 hours on average as a work week. I polled hundreds of leaders and these are office workers. So if you’re slinging macchiatos at a coffee shop all day, you’ll have a slightly different answer to this, but if you’re a knowledge worker or entrepreneur, you work in an office, that kind of thing, ask yourself how many of your working hours are actual command performance hours, where you have to be in the board room for a meeting at 10:00 AM or on the Zoom call every Wednesday at 9:00, and the answer that I get back is somewhere between five to 12 hours a week, 12 hours being the all-time high water mark I’ve heard from anybody.
So even if you’re lower on the hierarchy, even if you’re middle management, you probably don’t have more than 10 to 12 hours of that work week that are prescribed for you. In other words, you have a lot of agency so to do a little bit of math and let’s go on the high side, ’cause there might be somebody listening to this podcast, Brett, who’s like, “Listen, Carey, you should see my boss. I have 20 hours a week where I have to be in this board room and then I have to do this, and then I have to do that, I don’t have any control.” If you are that person, 20 hours a week prescribed by someone else means you still have control over 88% of your hours every single week, which is an insane amount of agency and control, so what I would do is I would focus on what you can control and not on what you can’t… And then as you work through this material, we encourage teams to work through it, you can start to have some really fun experiments as a team. You can even say to your boss, “Hey, I listened to this podcast, I read this book, At Your Best. I realized my peak hours are from 9:00 to noon, and I’m in meetings most of the time.”
“I wanna become more productive, I wanna help the company succeed. Is there any way we can move a few of those meetings so that I could do this work on you on fill in the blank: Developing sales leads, closing deals,” whatever you happen to be doing. “Is there any way that I could work in that field? And maybe we move some of the meetings around, and I’ll do that for a couple of months. At the end of the two months, you can evaluate. If you don’t see an improvement, we’ll go back to the way it was.” Unless your boss is insane, they will probably say, “Yes,” and if you open it up as a desire, not a demand, I think you’ll be surprised at how many reasonable bosses would love to see you win.
Brett McKay: Well, Carey, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Carey Nieuwhof: Yeah, you can learn more about the book and my work at atyourbesttoday.com, that’s just atyourbesttoday.com, and then everything you can butcher my name, it’s very difficult to spell, but I’m sure you can see it on your podcast app. It’s careynieuwhof.com, just careynieuwhof.com. And for the book, it’s available widely everywhere, and atyourbesttoday.com.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Carey Nieuwhof. Thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Carey Nieuwhof: It’s been a joy. Thank you so much for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Carey Nieuwhof, he’s the author of the book At Your Best. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You find it more information about his work at his website, Carey Nieuwhof, it’s N-I-E-U-W-H-O-F. Also check at our show notes at aom.is/atyourbest where you find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Check at our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of, and if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so in Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download us to trap on Android or iOS, and you start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you, please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding everyone listening to AOM podcast, to put what you’ve heard into action.