Over the past several years, the ever-expanding technological landscape has given financial advisors a plethora of tools that they can use to expand their reach, market their services, communicate with and serve their clients, and manage and grow their businesses. Yet, those same technological tools that have been so useful for advisors (i.e., email, social media, team communication platforms, CRMs, etc.) can also serve as irresistible distractions that can fill an advisors’ days with low-impact tasks as they react to an endless stream of notifications and, in the process, end out sacrificing their ability to do the things that can move their practices forward and allow them to do their best work for their clients. Which raises the question: how can financial advisors create the space in their schedules for high-impact work and actually leverage technology to do so (instead of sacrificing real productivity for ‘unnecessary’ responsiveness)?
In our 59th episode of Kitces & Carl, Michael Kitces and financial advisor communication expert Carl Richards discuss a key framework that advisors can use to prioritize their tasks, actionable strategies to create an environment that’s conducive to spending sufficient time on those things that are the most important, and how to manage their own natural tendencies to get distracted by life’s constant stream of interruptions.
The best place to start is by using the task prioritization framework introduced by Steven Covey over 30 years ago, which uses a container to represent the unalterable amount of time that we all have in any given day or week. The container, as the analogy goes, can be filled with rocks (the big, important stuff that moves us forward), pebbles (which are the things that have to get done but don’t necessarily move the proverbial needle), and sand (which is just the constant stream of communication and distraction). And the challenge that every advisor faces is that, if they don’t actually prioritize their rocks, then the sand and pebbles will naturally fill up all the available space in their container (which is why it’s easy to feel as if there’s never enough time to tackle the big rocks).
From there, the best way for advisors to make time for their rocks is to put it on their calendar… not mentally earmark a slot at some point during the week to get around to the rock, but literally book the time on the calendar, just like it was a meeting with a big client that can’t get moved or interrupted. Because when something inevitably comes up, advisors can (without missing a beat) respond that the time slot is already booked on their calendar. And, in order to create an environment conducive to the sort of deep concentration that working on rocks requires, advisors can turn off all incoming email and text notifications and set messaging apps on Do Not Disturb.
After making rocks a priority and eliminating distractions comes the hardest part, which is maintaining focus to actually do the work (and avoid the temptation of taking a quick look for any messages that may have come in). Maintaining focus, just like any other worthwhile endeavor, requires practice, but one effective strategy to get started is by setting milestones, and when a milestone is reached, the advisor can take a break and do something pleasurable (like going for a walk or getting an afternoon coffee).
Ultimately, the key point is that advisors who want more time to tackle the important things that will push themselves, their clients, and their businesses forward can start by actually booking time on their calendar to force time to be made. And if that causes issues because other urgent tasks aren’t happening, then the next logical step is to find someone to help handle them. Because, at the end of the day, there will always be more things to do than anyone has time for, and advisors who don’t actively take control of their calendar will always find themselves reacting to the sand and never have enough room for rocks. Or, put another way, no one has a magic machine that allows them to do more than anyone else. Rather, the real secret of time management isn’t about being more efficient; it’s about making the things that matter most (but aren’t necessarily the most urgent) the real priority.
***Editor's Note: Can't get enough of Kitces & Carl? Neither can we, which is why we've released it as a podcast as well! Check it out on all the usual podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts (iTunes), Spotify, and Stitcher.
- Society Of Advice
- Carl’s Secret Podcast
- Stephen Covey – Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand
- #FASuccess Ep 200: Scaling A Successful Business Beyond Yourself By Constantly Reinventing Your Role, With Michael Kitces
- Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes
Kitces & Carl Podcast Transcript
Michael: Good afternoon, Carl.
Carl: Greetings, Michael. How are you?
Michael: I'm doing well. How are you? I feel like you've been all over for the past few years. You went from the U.S., you were in New Zealand for a year or two, you were in the UK for like a year. You're back in the U.S. now. Welcome back. But I have actually been wondering, what are you doing here in the U.S. now? What are you doing at this point to keep yourself busy?
Carl: Yeah, well, thank you for asking. But first, for the record, we were in New Zealand for three and a half years, which is crazy. It feels like...
Michael: Wow, time flies.
Carl: Yeah. And especially there, we should have, could have spent a decade there for sure. So, yeah, it's amazing. London was amazing. And one thing that was super cool to see Australia, New Zealand, and then in the UK, and a little bit of broader Europe, the financial planning work that's going on there, amazing. And like you and I talk about all the time, there are real, however we want to define that, real financial advisors all over the world. And to hear those stories, it's almost uncanny to hear how close the struggles are, and the challenges, and what we're all dealing with, and where we are in the, whatever you want to call, progression of the profession.
So it's been super fun. And that's really set me up for the work I'm doing now, which is all the work at the Society of Advice. So the Society of Advice is just a place where we're collecting all those stories, gathering all those people. And mainly through...I don't even know what to call it, an anti-course. We'll call it an anti-course. An anti-course I built called The Fellowship. So that's what I've been focused on since we've been back.
Michael: Okay. And so where is all this? Are you up in a new societyofadvice.com thing now?
Carl: Yeah. So the behavior gap work, so yes, we've tried to take all the work I'm doing specifically for advisors. Most of the behavior gap work is for advisors as well, but it's for advisors as humans. Although here we're talking to advisors as advisors. So the societyofadvice.com, or if you just follow the dragon around, you'll find your way there.
Michael: Follow the dragon, which we'll just understand what that means when we see it.
Michael: When we're there.
Carl: I wish I can talk more about it. We got this thing called The Fellowship, that's the entry point to this whole world that exists. And the whole world exists, it's called The Membership. I'm not allowed to talk about it. But we have this monthly call where I bring a guest on. We've had Seth Godin on and Morgan Housel on. And the goal of the call is just to make all of us better. But yeah, I digress. So follow the dragon and you can find out more about that.
How Can Advisors Find The Time To Focus On High-Impact Tasks [03:50]
Michael: All right. So for our discussion today, we've had a lot of conversations over the past couple of weeks, over the past couple of months of just some changes to do, things to try, ways to modify our world, try to make us better as advisors, better as clients, better in the work that we do. And so, we got this great question that came in recently that I thought would be good to talk about today, which was, simply put, "Where do you guys actually find the time to do all the things that you talk about?" So this person asked the context of what are the daily habits that you use to try to find the time?
Although I thought this was a great, broader question of just how do you find the time...for all the different things that we want to do? But I think particularly in the context of being better advisors, being better in the work that we do with clients, being better as business owners for those of us who are business owners. Because you just... It's so easy to get stuck in the doing of the work to never get really around to the me time, the professional development time, the work on the business not in the business time, and all those different pieces that are the classic importance but not urgent and, therefore, never manage to make it to the top.
Carl: Yeah, totally. That's such a great question. I would love to ask it to you. Maybe I can set it up a little bit. I often think of this as a...surprise, surprise, I think of it as a visual. And I think of having maybe a Venn diagram that's got no overlap. So it's essentially just two circles. And in one circle it says, "The thing you really want to do." And I would shorten that by saying the thing. Or over here I could say knowing...it could be the knowing-doing gap, which has got some academic work done behind it. But really, let's just stick with the thing you really want to do and what you're currently doing. The other circle would be labeled "Currently doing." So the thing and current reality, and there's a gap. So there's no overlap, there's a gap. And I think we...
Michael: Just like are we literally seeing the behavior half drawing process occurring in real-time formulation here?
Carl: Oh, yeah. Especially...
Michael: This is actually how they come about
Carl: No, especially the thing you really want to do, I was like, "Oh, that's way too..." Immediately, since I said it, I heard Ron Lieber at "The New York Times" say to me, "That's too many words." So I was like the thing. Yeah, so that is part of the process is just this whittling down. And we could call it goal and reality. We could label those Things. But the point is, there's a Thing. And I love calling it The Thing because sometimes when you think of it as like art, there's all this pressure, and it's precious and fancy, but it's just like a thing. And often, these things that we really want to do are unspeakable. Meaning, you don't even know what it is. You just have... I like to think of it as there's just movement.
Or sometimes I compare it to...for those of you who aren't watching, I'm rubbing my fingers. Sometimes I compare it to a sliver just underneath the skin. It's sort of you're not quite sure it's there yet, but it's been annoying you, kind of speaking to you. So there's this thing. That's what I'm talking about, The Thing. And we all have them. I want to leave and start my own firm. I want to write a novel. I want to raise my hand at the next parent meeting for the soccer team. I'm just the secretary but I've got all these ideas. They don't have to be heroic. You don't have to sell your house. You don't have to move to New Zealand. But there's often a thing that we want to do.
And we're trained to jam it down, go back to being responsible, ever since we were in second grade probably like, "Go back to being responsible." But I'm just saying, okay, listen and I'm setting this up because I want to ask you how you do a lot of things. And I'm curious how you do them. So you got a thing you really want to do, and you got this really frustrating experience of knowing there's a gap. And we all...the first thing I would say is giant group empathetic hug. Just know you're not alone in being frustrated by that gap. This is how I want to behave. This is how I'm currently behaving.
So, Michael and I spend a lot of time talking. You and I spend a lot of time talking about all these things we could or should be doing. I want to do more content marketing. I want to write a book. I want to start a podcast. I want to niche my business. All those things. And all of us have this gap. So I know you've got a lot of things that you're doing. And I bet there are some things you really want to do. How do you find the time to close that gap to get overlap on the Venn diagram? What are some tips or tricks you use to find the time?
Michael: So, I've told a version of this I think once or twice in the past, maybe on "Financial Advisor Success" podcast. I hit a version...
Carl: Oh, that other podcast.
Michael: That other podcast. I hit a version of the wall on this. When you're chugging along in the business and you hit the wall and it burns you out and lays you out flat. I hit a version of that wall about four or five years ago. Or just so much stuff going on, so many things I want to do, saying yes to lots of things that are coming on, and absolutely driving myself to the point that I couldn't get any of the stuff done I really wanted to get done. I was always in reactive mode to everything else that was happening.
And I heard this analogy about time that I'm told comes originally from Stephen Covey of sand, rocks, and pebbles. So some people may have heard this. Imagine for a moment you're holding a glass mason jar, a big old jar in front of you. The jar is the representation of your time, the time in your day or the time in your week. It is fixed. It is not changing in its size or structure at all. You cannot manipulate it in any way. It's a big old mason jar. If you try to change it, it's just going to break. So you have to operate within this constraint.
And whether it's you, or me, or my kids, or a world leader, we all have the same 24 hours a day, 168 hours in a week container to deal with. So within that there's a bunch of different stuff that we do. There's a few big things that we try to work on. These like big old rocks. There's lots of little things that we've got to get done from day to day and week to week. Those are the pebbles. And then there's just the never-ending flow of stuff that eventually will fill in every single nook and cranny. The phone calls, the email, the Slack messages, or the Salesforce Chatter, whatever it is you use, like the constant stream of communication and sand.
And so the challenge that most people have is there's a lot of sand that chews up the day. Just the emails and the notifications never stop, it's hard not to continue to react to them. Then eventually, there's a couple of things on your to-do list that you had to hit. Those are the pebbles. Got to do that meeting because that is scheduled for me. And I've got to get that one really important report prepped for tomorrow's meeting. We hit a few of the pebbles. And then by the time you get to the actually like big, heavy important stuff, it's like, "I'm freaking tired. This has been a long day. I've only got 40 minutes left, I'm not picking this up now." And wash, rinse, repeat that happens day after day, week after week, and the big stuff never gets moved and it never gets done.
And so the analogy to this, if you think of the mason jar in front of you, it's like fill the mason jar about two-thirds with sand, then pour a bunch of pebbles on top until the thing's almost full, and then take a big fist-size rock and try to get it into the jar. And there is just literally no space. A tiny piece of the rock is going to rest on the lip of the jar. And basically, the whole rock is just going to be sitting above the jar and never getting in the jar because there isn't no darn room left after the sand and the pebble filled everything.
So the principle of this from a time management perspective is you place the big rock first. So now, pour out the mason jar so it's empty. Take the rock, put the rock in the...the big rock in the completely empty mason jar. So it fits. It's fine. There's all bunch of space around it because regularly-shaped rock in a nice, perfectly cylindrical mason jar. So now take some of the pebbles, important things you'd have to do, put them in as well. So they'll fall around, they'll fall in the side, they'll fall in the gaps between the rock to the lower corners. Then take the sand and pour it in on top. You are still going to fill the jar. That sand is going to fill every possible nook and cranny in the jar. Gets in every little, tiny crevice. You will fill the jar to the brim.
But because you put the big rock in first, the big rock's going to fit. And to the extent that there's more sand, pebbles, and rocks than could possibly fit in the jar, the only thing that's not going to fit at the end of the day is the last bit of sand you were trying to pour in on top. And so what that means is by definition, the only thing that doesn't fit is the thing that was the least important thing to fit. Because the rock is the most important thing and you got it in there. And the pebbles' the second most important thing and you poured them in there already.
And so to me, the secret of time management is not some people have this magic productivity machine where they get more stuff done than other human beings. It's much less about how to be efficient with your time, and much more about how to effectively prioritize your time. So that when you run out of time...because we all run out of time. I have a lot of things, and a lot of businesses, and a lot of stuff that I do. I never have enough time. But I do make sure that the most important things get done first, get placed in that jar first, the big stuff that will move the needle. And so then to the extent that I never quite get done with all the things I want to get done, what doesn't get done is the thing that was the most okay to not get done. I'm not happy any of it gets not done, but not everything fits. So the most important things get done and the things that don't are the things that were most okay to not get done.
How To Keep Urgent Tasks At Bay Long Enough To Get The Big Rocks Done [14:32]
Carl: Yeah. Look, I love that story. And I can remember the first time I heard that, and it's always been impactful to me. And I believe the same thing you do that it was Covey. Let me ask you a question about it. Normally the big rock, as we've already defined, most often, the big rock is important, incredibly important. In fact, it's the thing you would identify probably like, "This is so important to me," you would say that. And then we look at your calendar, remember the calendar and the checkbook never lie. I don't really care what you tell me is important to you, I'll tell you what's important to you by looking at your calendar. You look at the calendar and you never make time for it. So it's important and often not urgent.
By definition, those things are sometimes...they might not be hard in the sense of physical labor. They often take deep work, focus, concentration. And so when you go like, "Okay, I've done what Michael said, I put this block of time in the calendar and it says Big Rock. The things identify. I know exactly what I'm going to go do." It's not overly complex work, it's I know what to do. So I'm trying to get rid of all these other stories we tell ourselves. So I know what to do and I've got the time in my calendar to do it. And then I go to do it and what happens? What often happens is, “Oh, it takes focus, it takes deep work. Oh, there's always something more urgent. There's always the emails, there's always the client calling, there's always these more urgent things.” How do you deal with...? Really, how do you deal, and maybe even how did you struggle with, how did you figure it out? How do you deal with keeping the urgent at bay long enough to get that big rock done?
Michael: So I'd answer that two ways. Number one, you kind of said part of it in there. And for a lot of advice I see, and certainly for me, I didn't actually do this for a long, long time. Literally, put it on your calendar. You don't do rocks in the gaps in your calendar, which is how a lot of us tend to think about. I got a three-hour block on Thursday that's not so filled. So I'll work on this thing then.
Carl: I just want to emphasize this point. The mason jar is your calendar. So if you're going to deal with the rock, the first step, which I'm not even really interested in that step, I'm interested in the next one, but the first step is you got to put the rock on the calendar first. These...
Michael: But that to me, that's actually the biggest thing that most of us don't do. It's I've got some time on Thursday afternoon, there's a blank spot on my calendar, I'm going to work on the thing then. That was my mentality for years. That doesn't work. You want to do it, go to the blank spot in your calendar, put a three-hour appointment with yourself that says, "The Thing." In fact, in honor of Carl, you can literally just write "The Thing" and let everybody on the team wonder what "The Thing" is on your calendar.
Carl: For sure. For sure, we got to do that...
Michael: Schedule yourself on the calendar for the thing for three hours. Because when you do that, when you get to Thursday morning and someone says, "Hey, something came up. Can we meet this afternoon?" When your calendar is blank because you were going to work on the thing, you end up taking the meeting. When your calendar has The Thing and someone says, "Hey, I need to meet this afternoon." The answer is, "I'm so sorry. I'm booked. It's me time to work on the thing. It's not another client meeting, but I'm booked."
Carl: Okay. So in that very moment, has that been easy for you? Are you just like, "Oh, it's in my calendar. I do it."?
Michael: It was much easier for me once it was on my calendar. It had to be on my calendar. When I went to my calendar, I'm like, "Look, my calendar's booked. I just I can't be with you. There was already something on my calendar." Then the space got held. When there was a blank that I was mentally earmarking I was going to work on that afternoon, I could not with a straight face say to someone, "I'm busy this afternoon." Because I'm not, my calendar clearly said I was not. It was a blank.
Carl: Well, yeah. Look, I use this trick for skiing because I believe chunks of unstructured time are a prerequisite for doing good work, not a reward. And so I say all the time, "I've got a..." sometimes we even joke, I call it a board meeting because you're on boards. Get it? We've got some knee-deep problems...
Michael: You snowboarders, you.
Carl: I'm not a snowboarder. It's a ski. Skis, there are two boards. Or I've got some knee-deep...I'm knee-deep in problems right now in a board meeting. See, even better. That was even better. But here's the... So let's say you got it scheduled and then you... So some people are just disciplined enough that it's like, "It's in my schedule, I'm going to do it." But then there's this thing that also happens, and I just want to see where you land on this, is you go to do it. So you know there's a whole bunch of other urgent stuff out there. And you know three places where you could go to find the urgent stuff. You could certainly go to your email immediately and you'll get ping, ping, ping, ping, ping, all the...
Michael: Email, Slack message, text message. That's pretty much my...
Carl: Yeah, if you want to add in the dopamine machines. You can add in all that stuff, social media. So you know where you can go. So you get there, you sit down, it's in the calendar. Just walk me through this experience. Let's say it takes a little bit of deep work. Let's say it's some Kitces original research, you're getting ready. Do you ever have the problem where you're like, "Oh, I wonder what's going on in email."? Do you ever have that problem?
Michael: Yeah, I literally... Well. So first, I turn off the... Well, so as a general note, several years ago, I turned off the email notification.
Carl: Sure. If you're not doing that, please stop listening to this right now. Turn off all that stuff. Okay, got that.
Michael: I promise. You will still check all the time if you're that interested in email, but the actual notification message is never in any way good for your productivity. So first was turning off email notifications. Then, frankly, the harder one for a lot of us who communicate today, I turned off the messenger applications. I turn off text messages, I turn off... Slack is our platform. So I turn off all the Slack notifications. My calendar is integrated to Slack. So when I have the meeting set on my calendar, work on the thing on Thursday for three hours, if anybody even tries to send me a message in Slack, they hit my Do Not Disturb because my calendar says I'm in a meeting and it's linked to Slack. And so, it automatically turns on the Do Not Disturb that I am not replying. I turned off.
Carl: You've done all the defense, you've done a little bit of offense by putting it in this calendar, you've set up the firewalls, but you still know where to go. So when you... I just want to understand if you're like a cyborg. So when you go to do the thing and you hit the hard bit, which is always any kind of deep work or thoughtful work, it can get a little...creative work, it can get a little hard, I'm going to write something. Well, a sentence or two in, maybe even at the blank page, it's like, "Ah." And then there's you know where you can just go to get an escape, a little dopamine hit. You know there's all these places to go. Do you ever deal with that? And if so, how do you deal with it?
How To Stay Focused When It’s Time To Work On The Big Rock [22:33]
Michael: So either one of two ways. I will set many milestones for myself. More like get through the spreadsheet analysis for this client scenario. I got to get through the first draft of this spreadsheet. And when I get through this first draft of this spreadsheet, then I'm going to take a break. And then when I come back from the break, I'll write up the client notes, or write up the report, or write up the thing. So, give myself permission to say, if I get to this milestone, I can have a break. And it's always something that's a little bit further down the road from where I am. Like, all right, if I'm going to cue myself up, I may as well give myself a little bit of a sprint to the finish line. And then it'll feel good when I hit my waypoint finish line and I get to take a break. So you can absolutely set yourself up to take a break and even use that as an incentive to pull you just a little bit further along.
The second thing is you will crave that email check or whatever it is is a dopamine hit until you give yourself another dopamine hit. Give yourself a substitute. Well, so for me, that may be like, “Okay, I've earned the break, I'm going to take a walk outside just for a couple of minutes. I need some fresh air because I've been pent up in my office. Or I'm going to top up the coffee and take a little breather.” Which for me means I get to go say hello to the kids because it's pandemic time and my kitchen is an elementary school. So I get to go hang out with the kids for a couple of minutes and see how they're doing.
So my okay, I get a break, I get a little pleasure thing is not like I'm going to jump back into email and succumb to that temptation. Although I might, if that's the thing I want to look at. But often, I've just set up, I got other things that feel good when I need to take a break. And if you just create this, if you create a willpower battle for yourself, "I'm not going to do that thing." It doesn't work. You can't do that to yourself forever. It's literally not how our brains are wired to be able to withstand that indefinitely. You will wear yourself down. You will give in and succumb. And then you'll feel bad about the fact that you succumbed and then you'll feel worse about your self-confidence and then you won't even do it next time. That's how you get trapped in not being able to do this stuff and follow through. Give yourself some alternative positive feedback mechanism. For me, it's usually simple stuff. Say hi to my wife, say hi to my kids, grab a little food, grab a drink, or get a little fresh air.
Carl: Love it.
Michael: It's not complex stuff. Or the occasional fix for me, get a quick fix on one of the games I play on my smartphone because I am still a gamer. And so I got to get a little bit of my "Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes," if that's my break. But five minutes of a thing, it doesn't take long just to get a little bit of a breather and get back in there. And because I've structured a world that says everybody knows they're not getting me until 4:00, we're fine. And the truth at the end of the day is...I think you've said this on some of our prior podcasts as well. Look, I'm not trying to talk down the importance of what we do as advisors and what we do in our work, but we are not surgeons. No one's dying if we don't respond to that email for another hour or two. It's going to be okay.
And frankly, well, unless you are truly down to a solo advisor and it's literally just you, if anything's coming in that's that urgent, you shouldn't be the primary line of response anyways. Because you could just be in a client meeting for the next two hours and not be able to check your email anyways. So if there's anything that's urgent, it shouldn't be coming to you, to begin with. It should be going to someone else on your team who's more likely to see the email faster than you in the first place. And if those aren't coming to you, you have even less excuse to need to dive in there and see what's going on that's urgent and risk having it suck you in and derail you down a new rabbit hole that doesn't get the original thing done.
So just putting time on the calendar, giving yourself permission to say no to other meetings, other conflicts, other stuff that's going to be tempting to come in. But let's be honest, at the end of the day, it is not that urgent. And you start creating the time for yourself to do the thing, or at least to make a dent in the thing. If you can't get the whole thing done, then put three-time blocks in your calendar in the next two months and you'll chip away at the thing a little bit at a time until you get through the thing.
Carl: For sure. I love that. Super good. Super good.
Michael: But to me, the essence of it just comes down, if you want to find the time, look at your calendar and put the time off. There's no magic. That's where it comes from. Nobody gets extra hours. You just either prioritize it's the point that you put it on your calendar, which for most of us is what makes it a priority because then you're booked, and you can't do something else in that time. And if you're feeling the pain that when you put that thing on your calendar there's a bunch of other stuff you can't get to like, "No, I'm not going to be able to get to all those emails," cool, then start thinking about how else you could handle them. Who else could respond to them? What else could you do, or automate, or create that you don't have to respond to them in the first place?
Because there will always be more stuff that adds up than there is day to do it. But if you don't take control of it, by default, you're always in reactive mode to the emails and the sand and you never get to the rocks. If you prioritize the rocks and you find out you're missing sand that's important, find a way to restructure it. Otherwise, you're just going to miss the stuff that, let's be honest, at the end of the day, it wasn't that important.
Carl: Totally. That's amazing. Super helpful. Thank you.
Michael: Awesome. Thank you, Carl.