Win Your Productivity with Nick Sonnenberg

August 8, 2023
James Whittaker

Check out this episode on the Win the Day Podcast

"An hour of planning can save you 10 hours of doing."

Dale Carnegie

Have you heard that hard work will make you successful?

It’s one of the great fallacies of our time since, like me, I bet you know plenty of people who work hard but have little to show for it.

What’s really required is SMART work – and there’s a big difference…

Our guest today is Nick Sonnenberg, the former Wall Street executive turned operational efficiency expert – and smart work is his superpower. As Founder and CEO of Leverage, Nick has worked with organizations of all sizes and across all industries, from high-growth startups to the Fortune 10.

Nick’s CPR® Business Efficiency Framework results in greater output, less stress, happier employees, and the potential to gain an extra full day per week in productivity per person – just by using the right tools in the right way, at the right time.

Nick is also an Inc. columnist, guest lecturer at Columbia University, and the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Come Up for Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work

In this episode:

  • How Nick’s role on Wall Street made him realize what was missing most from his life
  • The biggest thing holding businesses back from true growth
  • How to create - and leverage - intellectual property; and
  • What you can do to become an efficiency expert right now.

Let’s WIN THE DAY with Nick Sonnenberg!

James Whittaker:
Nick, great to see you. Thanks for coming on the Win the Day show.

Nick Sonnenberg:
Thanks for having me.

How does it feel having the book out?

It's a relief! That was four years in the making, so it feels great to have it out.

You probably have to put blinkers on to stop any new tools from being put on your radar!

Well, part of the reason why it took four years is at the two-year mark, it was still changing so much. I'm like, "Okay, we need to pause for a little bit here." 

It's not so much the tools changing, we're getting smarter about how to think about them, use cases and best practices, but once it kind of stabilized, then it was more a matter of, "Should we add another example, cut a word, cut another word?"

But yeah, these things take forever, as you know.

I certainly do.

And where do you learn the most? Is it in your own business? Is it working for clients or just from observing what's happening in different industries?

A bit of both. We learn a lot from our clients, but my company, Leverage, we do operational efficiency training and consulting, and I kind of view it more like a think tank, almost like a laboratory where we're constantly experimenting with new ways of using tools. 

Now, obviously AI is such a big concept, so how do you apply that to the tools, automation, new tools on the market? So, we're constantly tinkering internally, but then sometimes clients, we can learn quite a bit from and see how they operate or what their needs are, and then that sparks new ideas as well.

Well, to take us back to your younger years, is there a particular memory or moment that really defines what your childhood was like?

My whole life, I've always been obsessed with time, even as a young kid. My mom's British, she's quite long-winded. 

So, even as a young kid, I can remember her telling me these bedtime stories and I'd just be like, "All right, so she wore a red dress and got eaten by a pack of wolves. I get it!" So, I've always, even from a young age kind of just been obsessed with time.

When did the intersection of understanding the value of time and getting paid based on the magnitude of the problem you solve first come on your radar?

Well, even in college, I was able to graduate a year early because at the very beginning of college, when you're kind of mapping out your courses, I sat down for half a day and I'm like, "Okay, if I take this class, it covers three general electives if I do this one." And I was able to just efficiently kind of optimize my course catalog and have four-day weekends at the same time. So, I started really getting more into it at that age. 

But then after college, I became a high-frequency trader. And so, in case you're not sure what that is, I was developing algorithms and coding computers to trade stocks at microseconds and nanosecond speeds all based off of math. And I knew nothing about the stocks. So at a young age, I was managing billions of dollars and it was pretty cool.

At a young age, I was managing billions of dollars and it was pretty cool.

And in that space, literally a microsecond can mean millions. And so, it was in that role, I did that for eight years, I really developed an even deeper appreciation for celebrating small wins. Even if we could shave a microsecond off of how the algorithm processes something, that can make a huge impact. 


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So, I'd started just fine-tuning and strengthening this muscle of really dissecting and breaking things down into micro components, celebrating small wins. It was all automated. Then obviously automation also, I developed a deep appreciation for that as well in that role.

What you mentioned there about university, so I was actually the complete opposite. You were able to graduate a year early. I ended up finishing my stuff a lot later, which was very frustrating at the time. I'm not someone that lives with regrets, but if I had my time again, I would do things so differently around that, going into undergrad, university time.

What would you do differently?

It was a big lesson for me that you need to master the rules of the game before you play the game. And a lot of times in life, we just find ourselves playing a game and getting very frustrated, especially in the business world. 

But if we take a step back – and this applies even in relationships – and say, "Well, what are the rules of what we're trying to do here? And how can we make sure this is the most efficient and effective partnership or venture that I'm involved in? What can we do differently?" 

So, when I saw that about your background, I was like, "Wow, that's such an interesting thing that you've been able to do."

Well, I think that's profound and applies to so many different aspects of life and business. Even as a high-frequency trader, I think one of my strengths was I'd really understand the rules of the game as it relates to the stock market.

So, I used to trade the Australian markets as well as some others when I lived in Asia. And I remember at a young age, I just studied all the rules of the exchange, the taxes, the mechanics of how an order is processed on a gateway. And then from there, once you really deeply understand end-to-end how something works, you could then start figuring out how do I find opportunity?

Once you really deeply understand end-to-end how something works, you could then start figuring out how do I find opportunity? 

But it always starts with understanding the rules of the game. And even in business, having core values or core principles, those are kind of the foundational rules. And then all the little things like, "Okay, on Mondays, we have an all hands," those are kind of just details that are sitting on top of some core foundational base of rules and principles.

They say the stock market is driven by fear and greed. When we're talking about algorithms – and AI has obviously taken all over a lot of the mathematical requirements of that – Were you doing something separate to fear and greed, or were you doing something that would leverage the emotions that you know the people were going to have?

I was just taking advantage of mathematical discrepancies in the stock market. And sometimes those discrepancies probably occur because people are making trades or moves based off of fear, greed, what have you. 

But whenever something gets out of the theoretical spreads that they should be in, that's where the algorithms would kick in and start placing bets.

So, that's your opportunity – to exploit anything that's out of the pattern that should be normal?

Yeah, I didn't care. So, specifically the type of high-frequency trading I did is called index arbitrage, not to go down a rabbit hole, but there's a theoretical relationship between say any index future, the S&P 500 and the stocks that make it up. And there's tons of index, you have the Dow Jones, you have the Nasdaq, in Australia, you have the AS51. 

And so, there's theoretical spreads between all these different things, and then there's a million other strategies that we had. But if the spread's supposed to be here and it's here, you want to sell this one and buy this one and vice versa, so we would just take advantage of that. 

What causes these spreads could be a magnitude of different things, but fear and greed could be one factor that does cause things to get out of alignment.

Interesting. 

And your time on Wall Street, I know that was around the subprime mortgage crisis [global financial crisis] a lot of things were going on. 

How did your time in that arena change how you saw the world and your role in the world?

What it did was it really gave me tools that I didn't realize at the time were so valuable. When I quit finance, I was worried. I was like, "I'm a world expert at index arbitrage. How am I going to apply this to startups or anything else?" 

But what it really taught me was, on one hand, how to think straight in stressful times. What happens if you have a billion dollars pending and the exchange line goes out, and you don't know if you got filled and you have to try to make the best decision in the moment based off of the information at hand without just having an explosion?

So, it taught me how to keep cool and calm under high stress, how to be rigorous with things, how to celebrate small wins. So, there was a lot of things I didn't realize at a young age. I was actually starting to learn how to be data-driven with decisions. It was all data-driven, the decisions that we made. 

I started coming up in that space during the financial crisis and other interesting times in history, but I think it was really just these kind of core principles of how to think about problem solving that I really gained.

Aside from your CPR framework, is there another process that you have in terms of being able to identify what a problem really is and the best solution to apply?

Well, so my CPR framework is really a foundational framework for the requirements of every team to be high performing and the different tools that are required in every company. But I think at a foundational principle level, kind of to what you were saying a bit earlier, what problem are we really solving here? It's easy to jump into a process and start optimizing, but should you even do that in the first place? 

What problem are we really solving here? It's easy to jump into a process and start optimizing, but should you even do that in the first place? 

I'm strong at getting down to first principles with things, and what's the problem that we're really solving here? What does success look like? And so, oftentimes you're given something, it's like, "Can you fix this?" And actually it's better to throw that in the trash and start over, do something else. 

So, I think that through my high-frequency trading days and just now my experience, now I've been a CEO for longer than I was a trader, I think I've just built this muscle of knowing how to solve a problem or optimize a process.

And what about the origin story for Leverage? Take us into that interesting time in your life.

So, when I got out of finance, I jumped into startups. I had a bit of money, at that time, I didn't have a wife or kids, still don't as of this recording, but I thought if there's ever a time to get into startup world, now's the time. And I got interested in it. 

I always thought I had the coolest job. At a young age, I'm managing billions of dollars, I had 16 computer screens. I thought I had the coolest job ever. And I went to the Turks and Caicos with my best friend, Aaron, and we were sitting by the pool and he was working on a laptop. And I was like, "what are you doing?" He's like, "Oh, well, I'm running my company. I'm an entrepreneur." And I was like, "What are you talking about you're running your company!?" I wasn't aware that this was even a possibility.

That image just really stuck with me that he's having a piña colada, he's by a pool and he is able to work. And then it really struck me that I didn't have the coolest job, that ultimately what I should be optimizing for is freedom: freedom of time, freedom of what I get to work on, who I get to work with when I work.

It struck me that, ultimately, what I should be optimizing for is freedom.

That really stuck in the back of my head, "What am I optimizing for?" And it's not just money, it's all these other aspects of freedom. And so, I eventually decided... I had an idea for a startup. I got out of finance, spent about nine months on that startup. It did reasonably well. And then during that time, I was having dinner with one of my other best friends at the time, and by the end of dinner, we had this idea for this new freelancer marketplace.

And I said to him, "Look, you get five clients, I'll build the backend in a day and we'll launch on day two." It was a Sunday. I was like, "Let's launch this thing on Tuesday." And we did. And you fast-forward a month, we're on stage at Genius Network. We were talking about that before, Joe Polish's event. And Tony Robbins was the day two speaker and we were the day three speaker.

We were talking about what we're up to and out of 100 people in the room, over 90 signed up for our services. So, all of a sudden within a month, we're just launched into this thing. And fast-forward a year and we have 150 people on the team and we're doing seven figures of revenue. We bootstrapped it and it was all by being clever with automation, so have you. 

All of that sounds impressive to people, but then when you look under the hood actually of what was going on, it was a complete mess. Yes, we were doing a lot of revenue and we were getting 20% new clients in every month, but the other side of that story is we were losing 15% of clients every month. So, we were net only growing at 5%. 

Good marketing was masking some foundational problems with how we delivered our services. We had about three quarters of a million dollars in debt, and we were losing about half a million dollars a year.

What was the debt from primarily? From wages?

We were operating at a loss. And so, what we would do is we would kick the can and anytime we were like, "Okay, how are we going to make payroll?" "Oh, let's presale more credits of services for the future." So, we would do that to fund what our previous loss was.

So, one day we're having coffee and my business partner taps me on the shoulder and he tells me he is out, not in two weeks or two days, he's out in two minutes. And I sit there and I'm going white and I'm sweating. I'm like, "Holy crap, we're going to go bankrupt." Because not only did we have those issues, also I was the behind the scenes guy and he was the front-facing guy. 

So, literally no clients knew who I was and maybe just a handful of team members knew who I was too. I have to decide in this moment, do I just bankrupt the company or do I stick it out and try to fix things?

I imagine your mathematical brain was probably telling you shut it down, but maybe your heart said stick with it.

Well, we had a lot of things broken, but on a positive, it's not easy to get to seven figures of revenue with a company. And I did also have a pretty clear understanding of where we were broken and what needed to be fixed. So, I kind of weighed the pros and the cons. Also, I didn't think it was ethical. We owed three quarters of a million dollars of services to people. So, if I shut it down, all these people I knew were going to get screwed out of their credit. 

Ultimately I started just thinking to myself, "Why are we losing money? Where are we wasting time? Where are the inefficiencies and opportunities?" And I started realizing one, our communication was broken. There were messages just all over the place. It was hard to get any work done. With 150 people on the team, it's just non-stop, just pings and dings everywhere.

The second thing I realized was I couldn't just click a button and know who's working on what. You have to start asking people, "Hey Diane, what are you working on? Hey, Andrew, what's the plan for the week?" I couldn't just click a button and have an overview of what's past due, what are the priorities. 

It was the genesis of this CPR framework: communicate, plan, and resource. 

Then lastly, I knew that we had to digitize all of our knowledge and I'd already done a pretty good job of that, otherwise we would've definitely not survived. And so, I started realizing we need to clean these things up. 

I started focusing on how we communicated, how we were planning, and our resources. And without realizing it, it was the genesis of this CPR framework: communicate, plan, and resource. But I started realizing that those were the things that we needed to focus on, but it was really tough. 

Within three months of him leaving, we lost 40% of revenue, clients and team members are leaving left and right, bank accounts frozen. My dad's taking a second mortgage on his house to help us make payroll.

Sinking ship on all counts.

Oh, yeah. You think it's bad enough to move into someone's basement, try driving them to the bank to get a signed mortgage document!

So, it was really tough, but through that, it forced me to get smarter and it forced me to stumble upon this framework. And then coincidentally, people started reaching out to me asking me to consult them on their operations. 

At that point, Leverage was a freelancer marketplace, but I was always more passionate with behind the scenes, like this game of mousetrap, how do we actually build this remote high-performing well-oiled machine? And so, I started fixing things. People started reaching out and I got to work with really cool companies. Tony Robbins gave the quote for the front cover of my new book, I got to work with him, potpourri, cryptocurrencies, financial advisors, big companies.

I started realizing that training and consulting people on best practices within these tools can totally transform the way they operate.

What I started realizing was everyone had the same issues at a high level. Everyone needed to communicate better, everyone had the needs for managing tasks and projects, and everyone had SOPs and processes.

So, I started realizing that actually this strategy wasn't just applicable to me, it was applicable to every company of every size of every industry. And so, that was quite interesting to see. And ultimately I realized that the bigger opportunity was not the freelancer marketplace, but to help all these businesses operate more efficiently.

If you think about how work has changed, it's not just remote or hybrid or co-located, it's we're not living in the days anymore where it's just Gmail and Outlook. Now, you've got Slack and Asana and Microsoft. There's all these tools that you can leverage, no pun intended, but no one's ever been taught how to think about all these tools, what's the purpose of each of these tools. And I started realizing that training and consulting people on best practices within these tools can totally transform the way they operate.

And so, we decided to pivot the company and now, the sole focus is on helping teams operate more efficiently. We're giving back over a day a week per employee. And that's also why I decided to write a book on this, I wanted to spread the message and help as many people as possible.

My mission is to save millions and millions of hours of people's time.

The one thing people don't have, especially people with young kids, is time. It's such a big battle. 

The fact that now you are so successful with the company, how does that help you reconcile internally the moment with your business partner leaving you?

Honestly, I don't give the business partner any thought anymore. It's been such a long time ago.

If anything, I'm grateful for the stressful situation because sometimes in order to have that breakthrough, you really have to go through something extreme to force you to totally break things apart and fundamentally change every aspect of how things are going, and rethinking the problem completely. 

So, I'm grateful for having gone through it. It probably shaved a lot of years off my life, but it forced me to come up with this framework, which hopefully is going to save millions of hours of other people's time.

Meetings are a big time suck. What is it with meetings and what can we do to fix them?

Yeah, usually the two quickest wins and biggest costs that are kind of invisible costs is how you use email. And so, learning how to get to inbox zero is critical, that could save three, five hours a week. But then meetings also is one of the most costly things inside of companies.

I was reading an article and I think it's something like $38 billion a year is wasted in meetings in the US, and I think that that was the stat from last year. And also, when you think about the cost of a meeting, everyone has an hourly rate. So, I think it first starts with what's the cost of this meeting? And an easy way to think of it, some of your people might not be hourly, even if their salary, assume 2,000 hours a year, working hours, so if it's a $100,000 a year person divide by 2,000, it's $50 an hour roughly.

And then you can make the adjustments. If it's a $50,000 a year person, it's $25. If it's a $200,000 a year person, it's $100 and then figure it out. So, if you get three people on a call for an hour that all make $100,00, $50 an hour times three, it's $150 meeting that you're having there. So, first is to really understand the cost of this.

What makes meetings more expensive? The higher the hourly rate of people, the longer the meeting, the more people you have in it.

What makes meetings more expensive? The higher the hourly rate of people, the longer the meeting, the more people you have in it. So, if there's anything that you can do there in terms of reducing, maybe you don't need to cut the meeting that you had each week. Maybe instead of it being 30 minutes, you could cut it to 15 minutes and then it's less painful and it's relevant, and you get value out of it.

So, can you cut the frequency, the number of people, the length, or maybe even cut it at all are the things to always be thinking about. But meetings can be really powerful if you do them right. And so, a couple of things to think about is one, have an agenda so that you can stay on point. You don't want to show up to a meeting and be like, "Oh, what are we talking about today?" You should have an agenda and you have someone making sure that you stick on point. Decisions get logged, action items get logged as well. 

Agendas are also really helpful because, going back to CPR communication, you've got Slack and Microsoft Teams and all these other tools, you don't want every time someone has an idea, the worst thing is they just start dumping it to you in Slack or Teams and then nonstop notifications.

So, you want to have an agenda to give them a place to dump non-urgent things that can wait till next week or next month's meeting. But your brain is for having ideas, not holding ideas. So, you have to give them a place to dump it so that they're not walking around trying to hold onto this thing. 

An agenda serves multiple purposes, but the best use of a meeting is for live collaboration. So, as you're trying to think about how can we reduce the length or the frequency, any aspect of a meeting that could be done asynchronously, like a report out. What was your assistant's name?

Jan.

Jan. So say Jan, she's giving you a report out on the metrics of your social media and podcast from last month, that doesn't need to be live. She could pre-record that using tools like Loom or other ways, and she could, say it's five to 10 minutes of an update on how the metrics are going, record a Loom video of that. Let's not talk about it live on the meeting and you can watch it when you're in the back of an Uber or when you're going on a walk or whatever. 

So, if you could just strip out all the stuff that could be done asynchronously and just focus on the synchronous part, which should be live brainstorming or a sensitive conversation too. You don't want to asynchronously tell someone they're doing a crap job.

The best use of a meeting is for live collaboration. 

But another thing to realize is it's not just about saving time, it's about optimizing time. Time isn't linear, not every hour slot on your calendar is worth the same. So, if you're doing those meetings at say 9AM or 10AM, if your time's worth $100 an hour, that time slot actually might be $1,000 an hour time slot. 

For me, Monday at 9AM is the most valuable slot on the entire week. I've just had a relaxing weekend. I woke up in the morning, did my workout, my morning shake, all that stuff, and my brain is at full horsepower at that point versus 6PM or 7PM on a Friday after I've had 100 Zoom calls and I'm tired, and I'm in the back of an Uber and I don't have Wi-Fi, and I don't have my laptop, that's a less valuable time slot.

So, the Monday at 9AM might be $1,000 an hour time slot, and the Friday at 6PM might be a $20 an hour time slot. So, if I can do a time shift and now watch Jan's video in that $20 an hour time slot, I'm still absorbing everything I need to absorb, but I'm optimizing my time, and now I can keep that 9AM Monday time slot for stuff that's more complicated, that requires a bigger decision that really needs that full horsepower. 

Dr. Michael Breus who connected us, one of the big things I learned from him was finding out the times when you have the most energy, then making sure you do your most creative and most productive tasks in that period. Things that will move your big goals forward, rather than basic tasks like emails.

You mentioned inbox zero there. For someone who's got like 5,000 emails sitting in their inbox, how do they clear that backlog? And what can they do to stay at inbox zero?

5,000 is nothing. We've dealt with people with hundreds of thousands!

Shift, delete all. Is that the trick!?

Not delete actually. I have a whole chapter on this in the book about you shouldn't delete anything, that you should be archiving, but there's two things. 

What is inbox zero? Inbox zero is when you go to your inbox, read or unread, you have say less than 20 or 30. Actually you don't want to be at zero because if you're at zero, it means every single time you get an email you're dropping everything and dealing with it, which is counterproductive. 

Email is just an external to-do list that other people can add to, that's the way to think about, that's a mindset around email. And just like you want to knock off all the line items in your to-do list, you want to knock off your to-do list, which is your email. 

There's three things that you can do with every email: reply, archive, or defer. So, the framework in the book is called RAD and most people, they don't think about their inbox that way. And when you keep having to process and look at the same message over and over by not archiving these emails, you can't help, but reread the same thing. And so, whether you realize it or not, you're wasting a significant amount of time reprocessing stuff that's already been processed. 

When you open up your inbox and you've got 10 or 20 right there, you can really focus and make... It's not just about the time savings, it's also about making sure nothing gets missed. When we work with clients, our most popular training at Leverage is teaching people how to use email properly and following this RAD system, I can't tell you how many times where people are like, "Look, I'm saving 3-5 hours a week, but I caught an email that I had missed that was worth $50,000 to me."

So, when you don't have a grip on your email, you're missing opportunities. People also start not trusting you. And so, this impacts culture. If people don't get replies or don't trust that you've seen something, then they get anxiety and then they start texting you and following up multiple times. And not only is that a time waste, that's an anxiety and stress impact. 

It also, as a byproduct, affects culture on your team because trust comes in multiple forms. One form is I trust that you're ethical and that you're not going to steal from me. The other is I trust that if I give you something, you're going to do it and you're going to see it. And both dimensions of trust are important in a team from a culture aspect.

You've worked alongside the best business leaders in the world, some of who you've already mentioned and you've seen under the hood of some of their businesses and the way they run their day-to-day. 

What do the best leaders in the world do differently than other people in terms of their daily routine or efficiency?

I guess, there's a few things. 

One, obviously operational efficiency is something that is deeply passionate to me, but I see that a lot of the best leaders understand the value of time and not just their time, but they care about the time of their team. You don't want, or they don't want a $100,000 a year person doing stuff that a $50,000 a year person could do. So, they actively try to figure out how can we get those things off your plate.

The best leaders understand the value of time. Not just their time, but they care about the time of their team.

Is it that you're wasting time in email and we have to train you? Is it you're doing the role of a junior person and we need to hire that person? So, that's one thing is they understand the value of time and they're not just trying for themselves to save time, but they're actively trying to have each of their team do things that tap into their unique zone of genius or are at the hourly rate that it should be.

I can already see how in terms of finding meaning in work and moving away from burnout, they're some of the byproducts of what you've just spoken about already.

100%.

What would your company look like if everyone was working on things that either give them joy or tapped into their superpower? And so, great leaders are really focused on that. How can they remove all the other crap from their team's plate so they can do the best, most meaningful work of their life at that company? 

Then obviously they're good at setting vision, financing vision. They have developed a strong sense of culture in the company.

What about the process of creating intellectual property in a business? What's the best way for a company to go about doing that?

Well, I'm a big believer in documenting. It depends what type of intellectual property. Obviously depending on what you have, you could go and get a trademark, copyright, patent, et cetera, et cetera. But for me, also another aspect to it is making sure that your team documents everything that they do. 

Because when you hire someone and you pay money and you invest in them figuring something out, you don't want to be at risk that if they quit tomorrow or something happens to them, you don't want all that knowledge just leaving. These things are assets to your company. If you ever exit, it's going to increase the value of your company. 

What would your company look like if everyone was working on things that either give them joy or tapped into their superpower?

So, you really want to make sure that everything's getting captured in a smart way, because I've seen a lot of people just capture everything, but it's disorganized and then actually it hurts you. But you don't want to be at risk of anyone leaving, but also documenting these things helps new hires get up to speed. It helps people self answer questions so they don't have to distract people. 

And like I said before, it increases the valuation of your company.

Once you start to create and identify a lot of that IP, what are some of the best ways that people can leverage that?

Well, you want to store it in some common cloud-based tool like Coda, Notion, like one of those types of knowledge bases or processes. You want to put it in something like Process Street, but you want to put it in a place where everyone knows where to look, because to really get value out of these things, people have to be able to find it.

Yeah, that's one of the big things I got from your book as well. It's so simple, but all these wasted minutes just add up.

And I don't know about you, but if I'm in that really high-powered creative mind and I need to find something and I can't get it, it is so frustrating. It just kills your energy if you can't get access to it.

It is, and look, everyone's busy. I called my book Come Up for Air because everyone's drowning in work.

So, if you're already working 12 hours in a day or whatever the thing is, and you've just created some asset, it is hard to motivate someone to drop everything else that needs to be done by end of day and spend a minute to go and put it in the knowledge base, in the right section, in a nice clean way. But if forever you don't do that and everyone's in that scenario, you never build up that asset for yourself where you have one place to look. 

And so, you really need to build into the culture that people should pause and put things where it belongs. The underlying principle of all of this stuff is to have a high-performing team, you need to be optimizing for being able to retrieve information fast, not transfer information fast. That's kind of the underlying principle that I realized is the key to unlocking efficiency across an entire organization.


You’re reading an excerpt of this interview. To access the full Win the Day episode with Nick Sonnenberg, including bonus content that doesn’t appear here, check out the YouTube or podcast version. ?


For someone who's watching this and they're just drowning, they're like, "I would love to have a bird's-eye view and think about all these different things I can implement, but I just don't have any spare minutes." 

Aside from grabbing a copy of your awesome book, what else should they be doing right now just to get a leg up to start moving forward a little bit?

Well, yeah, the book is obviously a really good start. 

Analyze the meetings, I would say that there's no fancy new tools, this is just kind of a new way of thinking, but anything that doesn't need to be done synchronously, you don't have to necessarily even cut the meeting, just an hour meeting, maybe it could be 45 minutes. That's a huge win. 

Think about if you're a team of 10 and you have a weekly meeting and you cut 15 minutes, it starts to really add up when you're looking at what the impact is across the entire organization.

Extra time for every single person who would've been attending.

Yeah. So, I would first start with what meetings can you do every other week instead of weekly? Does everyone need to be on it? Could you cut it a little bit shorter and people send an update, either a video or written? 

The next thing I would do is get a grip on email. One of the things with emails, even if you have 100,000 emails, within a few hours, you could get that down to zero, and understand going forward how you never get back into that situation and keep it at zero. And again, zero is in that 10 to 20 to 30 range. But email and meetings are the two quickest wins. 

A beauty with email is even if the rest of your team doesn't adopt this inbox zero methodology and that RAD framework, reply, archive, defer, even if they don't, as long as you do, you get the benefit because email's a single user activity. If you have a good grip on your email, you get the full benefit.

Some of the other tools that I mentioned in the book like Slack or Asana or some of these others, these require coordination amongst the team. If I assign you a task and you're not using Asana, I'm not going to be able to really get the full value out of Asana. It's like, "What's the value of a cell phone if I'm the only person in the world that owns a cell phone?" You’ve got no one to talk to, right?

So, email is a single, you get the full value as long as you adopt the right principles. These other tools just take a bit longer because you have to get buy-in and coordination amongst a network of people. So, the email and inbox, those are two quick wins, probably save you half a day a week right there if you do that properly.

I'm often a lot better on emails than I am on text messages!

Well, same.

Sometimes a text is interrupting your day and all the notifications on your phone, I just can't stand it. But emails, I can see it when I want it, I can have that distance, but every email that just sits there in the inbox, as I'm reading it for the 50th time, I'm drafting a reply in my head, inevitably move on to something else. And gee, it's such a brain drain, isn't it?

Well, the D in RAD is defer, which is snoozing. So in Gmail, you have it natively built in and Outlook, depending on the version, you have it or you have to use Boomerang or one of these third-party tools, but you can't snooze a text like you can in an email. And it's very, very powerful. 

So, say you emailed me driving directions to the studio today, right? We've been planning this for months, haven't we? I didn't need that email in my inbox for three months. I needed it this morning. So, I snoozed it to the morning of today. And so, when I woke up, popped right back up to the top.

When you need it.

Right, when I need it, and I see where we're going, any other relevant information, then I was good to go. So, deferring is something that most people, 99% of people aren't currently doing in their email. And it's massively valuable. 

Also, when you defer, if there's any update to the email, it deactivates the defer, and it goes straight to the top. So, if you're writing to a client and you want to be guaranteed if they don't reply, you want to know in a week and you want it coming back to the top. But if they do reply on day three, it goes to the top on day three. So, there's so many use cases of snoozing that people just aren't taking advantage of.

I would love to know with just the way that you think about the world, how do you set goals and then in terms of medium, long-term things as well as your daily routine? So, you can pick whichever one you want to start with, daily routine and long-term goals, what's your process for thinking about those?

Well, I think with long-term goals, as the world becomes more volatile, I'm shortening what I call a long-term goal. I think long-term used to be maybe three years, now maybe it's like six months or a year.

For the most part, what I like to think about with goals is at some time period of the future, looking back at what needs to have happened for me to feel like I made meaningful progress professionally and personally. And so, I'll start thinking about that. In a year from now, what needs to have happened for me to have said, "Hey, I had a really good year?" 

That could be different for you versus me. And that's a pretty good framework that usually is a baseline to kick off where I start setting goals. But it's more for me, milestones versus goals. A lot of things could happen in between, but it is good to have a North Star for yourself and your team.

In terms of my daily routine, I travel quite a bit, so it changes depending on if I'm in New York, which is my home base. But in general, I'll wake up about 5:30AM, I'll do yoga and then I'll go to CrossFit, and have my morning shake. I try to block my mornings as much as possible for me and start calls later.

It doesn't always happen, but I typically don't do calls until at least about 10AM. Sometimes there's exceptions. So, after I do my yoga and my CrossFit and my shake, I'll go into my email and get back to zero, and kind of plan out my day.

Of all the clients that you have helped, is there a particular transformation that you are most proud of that's happened for them as a business or for them as an individual?

Yeah. We worked with a large distribution company and the CEO is a great guy and now, a dear friend, Marc Bodner, and he's now the chairman, he was the CEO of L&R Distributors. And one thing that made that such a powerful and impactful engagement was he was so bought in. 

Any transformation in a company has to come from the top down. It can't be, "Do as I say, not as I do." Obviously we did a great job and I have a great team, but also he really was a promoter of this to his team and really said, "Look guys, we're doing this." And it's not always the case where the CEO will take such a stance and such a passion for the efficiency, but he firsthand saw the impact and he's like, "Guys, this is the way that we operate. If you don't want to do it, just leave."

Any transformation in a company has to come from the top down. It can't be, "Do as I say, not as I do."

But we were the typical half day to full day a week per employee, but also, I forget the dollar amount, but I think it was pretty substantial, I think like tens of millions of a deal they were able to land that they put a lot of emphasis that they felt they landed the deal because they were up against a few other companies, but the way they presented to them on how they were going to execute on it, they did it in this tool, Asana. 

I talk about Asana a lot in the book. It's a work management tool, and they laid out the game plan and this beautiful Gantt chart. And it really showed that they had a strategy that was well-thought-out, and I think it gave the person on the other side, it gave them the trust in them that these guys are going to be able to execute on it.

I've worked with a lot of podcasters and business owners who want to grow using a podcast. Consistency is the absolute killer for people. More than 80% of podcasts have seven or fewer episodes.

It's probably the same with YouTube channels and everything.

Yes, exactly. 

So, when someone schedules something, we use Calendly, which will talk to Asana, which will talk to G Drive, which will send all of the automated emails, all those different things like Slack. Everyone knows what needs to be done. 

It's a game changer in terms of efficiency. And consistency is essential in any business if you want to grow.

Well, what you're bringing up makes me think about the difference between saving and investing time. So, to set that stuff up, probably took more than five minutes. It probably took hours of time and tinkering, and you probably changed it a thousand times along the way, but I would call that an investment of time, not a spend of time. 

Just like you can spend and invest money, you can spend and invest time. And so, you invest the time setting that up because on the back end of that, you've now created a process that every podcast guest that you have, you're saving maybe 10 minutes or 30 minutes. But once you invest that initial time of the 50 hours or whatever it took, or 10 hours, whatever it took, if every time after that, you're saving an hour an episode to do the bookings, well, if it took you 20 hours to set that up and now you're saving an hour after 20 episodes, you're in the positive with that investment.

People don't think enough about saving versus investing time. An example I also use is imagine you have this sink that's broken and water's overflowing. A lot of people just take out the mop and start mopping up the floor. Say it takes you a minute to mop the floor or an hour to patch the pipe. A lot of people say, "It's just quicker to mop it." And sure in the moment, it is quicker. But if every day, you got to spend a minute, after 60 days, you'd be better off patching the pipe.

So, a lot of these things that we're talking about here, you have to be willing to do that investment, but knowing that after a certain period of time, you're going to be saving in perpetuity X minutes or hours, and you have a break even point after a certain time. And so, of course things come up, there might be an urgent deadline and you just can't patch the pipe today, but you have to be aware that you're making a conscious choice. You can't always just take out the mop because if you do, you are signing up for a life of just mopping.

Back to the conversation around assets, you've invested a tremendous amount of money, time, attention, money, resources into figuring out the best way of producing a podcast. And so, that's an asset that's valuable to you. And now, because you've invested that time, every podcast, not only is it smoother and faster, but you'll have less errors. 

Sometimes just avoiding that one error… If you forgot to email me the instructions to get here today, that would be a costly error, even if it's one error out of 100 steps. So, it's not just about saving time through automation, other things, it's also indirectly saving time by avoiding an error that occurs where sometimes that one error could set you back hours.

And I see people who take automations a little bit too far, they get lazy with it, so everything becomes too standardized. Where you can, injecting that personal touch, especially with other people that you're meeting for the first time, I think it's really important to do that.

Well, automate what you can automate like a calendar reminder or something like that that could be automated. But maybe your process is this step we automate, this step is a personal message that you purposely don't automate.

On your best day, what's an affirmation that you could write on a flashcard to show yourself on your worst day?

That I'm human.

I like to consider myself a high performer. I set high standards for myself, so inevitably, I'm not hitting all of my goals or everything I'm trying to achieve. And sometimes it's easy to forget that you're still a human and that's normal to not always hit it.

Final question, what's one thing you do to win the day?

That morning routine, waking up at 5:30AM, doing a double yoga and CrossFit, that just gets my brain firing at full horsepower. And the next, what I can do for the following few hours after that, I probably don't have to work for the rest of the day after those first few hours.

Yeah, you know what? I've never heard anyone else mention that. I think it's so important. I'm exactly the same. I feel like those well-used high creative hours, you can do more in three hours than most people can do in an entire week.

Absolutely.

Nick, thanks so much for coming on the show.

Thanks for having me.


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