With the beginning of 2020 upon us, we find ourselves not only ringing in a new year, but also welcoming a whole new decade! And with these new beginnings comes the perfect opportunity to review our most important personal and professional goals, set new intentions, readjust (or even abandon) old ones, and explore strategies that might help us reach those goals more effectively.
In our 24th episode of Kitces & Carl, Michael Kitces and financial advisor communication expert Carl Richards talk about their own big goals for 2020 and the strategies they’ll to use to achieve them. And two of their key components to doing so (which can apply as effective practices for all knowledge workers like financial advisors) are 1) getting sufficient rest and 2) clarifying intentions.
As while rest allows the brain to recharge and maintain optimal cognitive function, taking structured breaks from work shouldn’t be seen simply as a reward for doing good work, but also as a vital prerequisite for supporting the mental acuity and creative capacity needed to do good work in the first place! Accordingly, tackling goals with a non-stop “hustle” mindset may not necessarily be the best strategy to use; rather, it may be more effective to prioritize rest and relaxation, scheduling enough of each into one’s recurring routines.
However, the challenge for many busy, ambitious individuals is that they often have so much on their plate that they simply don’t have enough time to get everything done, making it difficult for them to schedule much-needed rest and relaxation into their schedules. One strategy that can help them to organize priorities is to implement the idea of “Big Rocks”, proposed by late author and productivity consultant Stephen Covey, in which the most important tasks are prioritized first (like “big rocks” being placed in a jar representative of one’s available time), and less important smaller tasks prioritized later (like pouring “pebbles” and “sand” over the big rocks, filling the empty spaces in between). This ensures that the real prioritities (including rest!) are tackled first, leaving room for the smaller tasks to come later (which, if they don’t get accomplished because there’s no time after the other work and finding time to rest, are by definition of little consequence relative to the larger goals and thus not as problematic to miss out on).
Ultimately, the key point is that having clarity on which goals are most important is crucial in identifying and prioritizing the “big rocks” that should be tackled first. And whether your goals are to grow your business and expand your team, or to make time to enjoy a daily hike, sufficient rest is paramount to achieving those goals with optimal mental clarity and creative capacity.
***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.
Kitces & Carl Podcast Transcript
Michael: Welcome, Carl.
Carl: Greetings, Michael. Super glad to be talking again.
Michael: Happy pre-emptive New Year, like, pre-New Year. It is December, almost New Year's. By the time this runs, it will be New Year's, because, secret’s out of the bag, we don't record these live. They're recorded slightly in advance so the video and podcasting folks can do their video and podcasting thing. So, early Happy New Year!
Carl: You, too!
Michael: Looking forward to a good 2020.
Carl: Yeah, super excited. My daughter, who's 15, just told me yesterday, she's like, "This is such a big deal. It's my first..." She didn't really know what to call it. Like, "First turn over of a century." I'm like, "No, it's not a century." She's like, "A decade?" "Yeah, it's a decade." So anyway, really exciting times, 2020.
Michael: It's like the time when you're driving and for the first time you watch that odometer trip over, it's an exciting time when you roll a new zero.
Carl: Yeah, for sure. For sure.
Michael: A new zero onto the end.
Michael: So, what's your plan for 2020? This is like the season of New Year's resolutions. We all decide what we're going to do differently in the New Year. So, what's your New Year's resolution? What's your do-differently-in-2020 thing?
Identifying Big Goals for 2020 [02:20]
Carl: Yeah, that's a good question. There's a whole bunch of stuff. But for the last couple of years, I've sort of solidified this love I have of big, impossible goals, which I've finally gotten comfortable with. I didn't realize I had big impossible goals just because of their sheer gravitational pull.
Michael: Like The One Page Financial Plan?
Carl: Yeah, something like that. Like, change the financial industry forever; some big goal because of its gravitational pull, and then the idea of micro-actions to take steps towards it. But what that always makes me think about is this need – and maybe we want to talk about this – this constant pressure we all feel to sort of hustle, right? Like, to crush it, to go faster, go bigger, do more, right? So as soon as I hear the words, "What are your goals?" That's what I think of, like big, go fast, gas pedal down, full gas. So maybe we want to talk about that.
But before we do, what are you thinking for 2020? What goals do you have?
Michael: For me, it's an ongoing evolution. The cycle for my own business growth over the past 10 years was lots of work early on and just, as you said, that hustle phase – just get revenue growing, grow your business, make sure you survive, keep moving forward. Then it started working and you're like, "Woo! This is awesome!" And it starts compounding, and then it starts compounding a little more, and then all of a sudden you go, "Oh, my God, it's kind of a lot of business coming in. It's getting a little bit busy. Now it's getting a lot busy."
And I spent frankly a couple of years from probably 2015 through last year just being buried, succumbing to the success of compounding. Like, "Oh, this is working well. Oh, crap, this might be working too well," and I’ve been trying to figure out how to regain a little bit of control over my time, over work-life balance that's been a lot of hiring a team and expanding and shifting a lot of my role within the business.
I think 2020, for me, will be one more year of this – of building the team bigger and making some of these adjustments – and then I'll mentally be ready for the next phase. But it's been living a couple of years of penance, of, “This is what happens when you get behind the hiring curve on the growth of your business,” and it buries you for a while.
Carl: It's so interesting to me when you start to realize that you can kind of hustle your way through to a certain point, whether it’s revenue, income, influence, or whatever your measuring stick is, and I actually mean that. I'm not talking about just revenue or income, but whatever your measuring stick is, you can sort of hustle your way to a certain point. And then you have to realize you can't hustle beyond that, right? Two things happen. One, I do believe your ability to work at that level starts to decline. Either we get wiser, or we're just at an age where we start to say, "Hey, look, you can't quite push it that hard." Or you start to realize, “Wait, it's just actually not possible”, right? You can't hustle past a certain point. I don't know what that point is. I had a friend say to me the other day, "You can hustle your way to $1 million in revenue, but you can't hustle your way to $10 million." It's just not going to work.
So one of my big goals last year and again this year is to incorporate this idea; I sort of consider myself a modern-day idea hunter. Like, I'm a hunter; there's no doubt that if I was born a long time ago, I would have been no good for anything except hunting. If you were to put me in charge of the garden, there's no way, this is not going to...something that took consistent day after day after day care, we wouldn’t be eating.
But if I were told to go hunt something, and I noticed this because I'm constantly, even now I'm constantly scanning the bushes, right? And I don't mean real bushes, but any bush, like, is there a lion in there? So I'm sort of wired for hunting. And it shows up in the form of new ideas. Naming something, figuring out strategies, different ways to approach something, creative work – that's what I'm wired for.
Knowledge Workers Need Rest To Maintain Optimal Cognitive Function [07:26]
And so, in the old days, it seems to me, based on what I've read, you would go hunting, and it may have lasted a day, it may have lasted a couple weeks, or it may have lasted a couple months. But then you'd come back and there would be some rest, right? And I think that's the part that I have not really understood very well up until like maybe three or four years ago. I started to get the idea that if you're going to be switched on, sort of like hunting and all the fight-or-flight stuff that goes along with that, the adrenaline rush, all of the stuff that goes on, you've got to remember to build in rest.
I'm not exactly talking about work-life balance; I'm just talking about the idea that, as knowledge workers – people who work with ideas – there's a tendency for us to think we can do this 24 hours a day because there's no calluses on our hands, or it's not physically back-breaking. But we just can't. It seems to me like the curve of our effectiveness, and for those of you who are just listening, I'm sort of drawing a downward sloping curve, and I think even if you were to plot the peaks and valleys, the peaks are getting lower and the valleys are getting deeper as you continue to push that hard on cognitive work.
So, people who do knowledge work for a living, I think it requires chunks of unstructured time, chunks away from the phone, time outside, time at rest. So I'm really interested (and then I'll be quiet because I want to hear what you have to say about this) in those chunks of unstructured time and that rest is a prerequisite. So let's just use free time. Free time is a prerequisite for doing the kind of work we do, not a reward, right? So it's taken me a couple of years to get comfortable with this, but I can very comfortably say to the team, or to family, "This hike I'm going on is work.” Or “This nap I'm taking", this one's a little harder, but, "This nap I'm taking is work.” Because if I don't do it, a couple weeks from now, I will be starting on a downward trend in terms of my ability to sort of deliver on a cognitive level. Does that make sense?
Michael: Yeah. Well, so the whole, "This nap I'm taking is work" – I get it conceptually, but that might be a little bit of a leap for me. I've got to warm up to that one.
But to me, the essence of what you're talking about is sort of a two-sided coin of burnout. Like what happens when you push too long, too hard, right? You burn out. Your work quality declines, your focus declines, like lower peaks, lower troughs, you go down that downward cycle. And I think the positive flip side of that, which is being well-rested, is a prerequisite to doing good work in the first place, right?
It's still the number one tip I give to CFP exam test takers every exam cycle is that there comes a point when you're 24 hours out from your exam when you need to stop studying, go rest and go to sleep early. Because nothing you're going to learn in the last hour of the three-month study process you've been doing is likely to have as much positive impact on your ability to pass that exam tomorrow as going into it well-rested from a good night's sleep the night before. So there is kind of this, rest is both the recovery to recharge from burnout, but the prerequisite to do your best work in the first place.
Carl: Yeah. And I just think we forget... So maybe let's just clarify that as a planner, or as somebody who gives professional financial advice for a living, that advice is creative work. I don't really care if you want to call it that, but it is creative work, right? The ability to take in and do technically detailed and technically-oriented work, but you also have to come up with creative solutions, and you have to think about things.
(And I can't believe how bright it just got in my office. So I guess we'll just roll right through that. I think the sun just came out outside New Zealand. And I would adjust it if I could, but I can't. Actually, you know what? Let's just be crazy. Don't edit this out. I'm just going to go over here real quick and I'm going to close these blinds, and we're going to keep rolling because that was just too much. Here we go. There. That's better. When it gets sunny in New Zealand, it gets sunny quick.)
So I think we forget; we don't give ourselves permission to realize this is cognitively demanding work. And it's especially cognitively demanding from a resilience perspective when you're looking people in the eyes, people who've cried in your office, whether they've cried or not, but you know how important these goals are. You know how important this money is.
Markets get scary, you have to give mission-critical advice in the face of irreducible uncertainty, right? You do not know exactly how it's going to work out. You have the weighty evidence of history behind you, sure, but you still don't know. That is demanding. And at least my experience has been because it's not back-breaking work, I used to say all the time, “Well, at least I'm not digging ditches.” But we don't realize the need for recovery.
So I've got a strength coach here in New Zealand that trains a bunch of the current New Zealand All Blacks rugby team; in New Zealand, that's like going into the gym and seeing LeBron James in your gym, right? Like, if those guys were to come in and work out eight hours a day, five days a week, right, you would never do that to a muscle, but we think we can do that to our brains. And I think we just need a little bit of like...a little bit of permission to realize, hey, if we want to have long, resilient careers, we've got to learn to rest a bit. We've got to learn to recover a bit.
Michael: Well it reminds me, even the old Dan Sullivan Strategic Coach work used to encourage advisors to manage your calendar around basically three types of days: your focus days, which are the good old “get the clients, make it rain, and do the work” days; buffer days, which are essentially like your preparation days for the big focus days; and then free days, where you're just away from the business, resting and rejuvenating, and trying to get either some of that energy back if you're burning out, or, as you framed it, the “work naps” that we need to be fresh and come at work positively.
Carl: Dan Sullivan's work is amazing to me because it flies in the face of all the sort of “cool bro hustle porn”, if I can call it that, around entrepreneurship and the crawling on and eating glass and whatever. And Dan Sullivan, on the other hand, says, "No, it doesn't have to be that way," I think the Strategic Coach definition of a free day, in Dan Sullivan's words, is a 24-hour period where you don't talk, think or do work. And I can't remember what Dan’s number is, but I think he takes like 150 of those a year. Like, think back, everybody listening, think back, can you think of a day when you did this? Hopefully, a bunch of you can, but I talk to a lot of my friends that can't think of a day, and I honestly can't. When you add "think about work or talk about it," like my wife is constantly listening to me talk about new ideas, right? And so I think we even lie to ourselves about our own rest. Checking email. I've recently implemented a policy where I have to take a cold shower, a 90-second cold shower, full cold before any screen time.
Michael: You're like Pavlovian-training yourself to resent your screen?
Carl: No, I just have a philosophy that a cold shower is greater than coffee (so there we go – we're going to have to have a whole other conversation, I'm sure). But the cold shower – my point really is that it's shocking how we all know you shouldn't check this thing before you go to bed, and we all know it shouldn't be the first thing you check when you wake up. The research is clear, there's no debate. And yet, maybe it's just me, but in my conversations with people, most people do anyway.
So I think this idea of getting really clear, I don't think this means work less. I don't think it means being less productive. In fact, I think it's the opposite. I think if we can get clear, at least what I'm finding is if I can get clear about rest, giving myself a break really intentionally, I'm actually far more productive, not less. And that low-level thing that we pretend is work, like totally pretend,... Look, I'm in a co-working space right now. The only thing that doesn't happen here is work. Like I can see everybody’s computers are on Facebook and Twitter, all that. If we just got clear about like work and rest, I think we're more productive.
Michael: So as 2020 kicks off, what are you doing differently in this year of finding a better balance between work and rest?
Identifying (And Sticking To) Intentions Using Big Rocks, Pebbles and Sand [10:06]
Carl: I'm trying to be really, really clear about what work is, right? Like, what work. And then even more like, back to Dan Sullivan, what's my unique ability? What are the activities that only I should be doing? And then as I have the luxury, which I don't completely have right now, but as I have the luxury to offload those things that I like the least. I keep a do-not-do list to keep track of the things that I least like, things that have to be done that I least like to do. And every 90 days, I pick one of them and I get rid of it. We either delete it or delegate it.
I'm just trying to get more clear about work, and about the line, like, okay, great, you're done with that? Stop. Go on a walk. Go on a 20-minute walk. Spend time outside. Can you take one full day off a week? Right? And by one full day, I mean full free time. Can you take a vacation without spending all the time just haranguing your spouse or friends or partners about all the cool new ideas you have? Those are the kind of things I'm trying to implement.
How about you?
Michael: So when I got buried a couple of years ago, the challenge for me was just figuring out where the line was. And I'm a bit of a workaholic. I'm a bit of a workhorse. I've always been able to just put in a few more hours to get a bit more stuff done than most, which is why everyone wonders if I sleep. I really do sleep. I actually need my sleep. I'm just really good at being productive. But my challenge was that I managed to keep burying myself in that process, and I just added more and more until I was borderline breaking myself.
Carl: Well, can I interrupt? I really want to dig in here for a second, but what does borderline breaking yourself mean? How did that show up? How did you know?
Michael: Just being tired, not having the same energy that I had before. Feeling like I couldn't even get the mental space to do the level of work that I wanted to do, because it was just always ticking off the last item; I was always trying to make sure I was keeping up on because I always just had more stuff to do than time to do it.
Michael: So at least for me, it wasn't literally a burnout stage, it was just a very direct overload stage. The way that I ultimately got at least some control, and how I’ve worked it out over the years is… so I fell in love with this analogy that I'm told originally came from Stephen Covey. That you can think of your time as a jar, like a big glass mason jar, right? So it's a fixed finite container. Everybody gets the same 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 168 hours a week to do their stuff. And as the story goes, you can think of the things that you do in three categories. There are the one or two big things that you do that move the needle every day and every week. Those are ‘big rocks’ that you can put in the jar. Then there are the medium-sized tasks that are important. They're material. They're not big rocks, but they matter, so these are pebbles. And then there's all the email, all the social media, all the miscellaneous stuff that crops up, this is the fine sand that just forever keeps pouring in.
The challenge that most people have is that the jar fills up heavily with sand, because the emails never ends, then we grab a few important items to do when we get a moment here and there, and we can put in a few more pebbles. And so now I feel like if you imagine the mason jar that's like two-thirds filled with sand and then mostly filled to the brim with pebbles, you're left holding this big rock with no freaking way to get the rock inside the jar because you've already filled the jar with the sand and the pebbles.
And the way that you manage this is to place the big rocks into the jar first. So if you imagine pouring the mason jar out, putting the jar back in front of you, and then putting the big, giant rock in first. So you know the big things are getting done, because you took care of it first. Now, put the pebbles in second, right? And if you've got a big rock with a weird shape, you kind of envision what happens – the pebbles will sort of drift around the big rock and settle into the open gaps. Then take the sand and pour the sand in on top, and it will slowly drain down and fill in every single possible crevice because fine sand, that's what it does. So you're still going to fill the jar because there's only so much time and we've all got the same time, but when you put the big rocks in first, you get the big rocks in and done. If you place the big rocks last, there's never enough room to get them done.
I decided to embody this and started doing this four years ago now. I'm still doing it, and I actually sit down for the year and line up what all my big rocks are throughout the year. We still publish the blog, so I need this many days to do writing. I have this many days to do speaking. I have this many days that I still need to be in the advisory firm for team meetings or client meetings or whatever it is. I need this many days just to do our internal team meetings. Mondays I just run all of our team meetings. So every Monday, it's just spoken for, because I've got to be a good leader for the business and manage the team.
And so, I essentially programmed out the year like, look, there's only so many working days in the year, you can't do multiple big rocks in a day, because you run out of room in the jar. And so I only get one big rock a day and I only get so many days of the year, and so it got really easy to figure out where my exact capacity limitation was because I just started lining up the rocks and I ran out of days. And that's clearly the cut-off.
And so what I've done now over the past couple of years is start to rejigger these days. So year one was just, so at least if I put this in place, I can figure out when I have to start saying no because I'm literally out of time. And then for the past three years since then, I've been starting to shift around what those rocks are. So less doing, more leading, and building a team behind me so I can hand some rocks off to take more management rocks on. But slowly and steadily shifting my time to bring the aggregate load down. So last year, I got to just start putting on a few rocks that are just, work “on the business” and not “in the business” days.
My goal in 2020 is to actually just have a few of these rest days that start to get onto the calendar as a big rock for the day. Maybe a free day, or your version of, "I'm working by taking this nap."
Carl: What would you do on one of those rest days?
Michael: Oh, I'll probably still end out just reading business books and getting new ideas. I can't completely unplug. My limits do kick in at some point. But getting some creative free space back without always being stuck in the doing of the business that I think just it happens to virtually all of us when we've been doing this long enough. You accumulate enough clients, you accumulate enough business success, and that phenomenon starts to kick in where the business just starts to pull more and more of your time. And it's very hard to draw those boundaries.
At least for me, the way I was able to redraw the boundaries, get control of my time and my days was by saying, "Here's exactly what I have the capacity for during the year." You only get roughly 5 business days a week, 50 weeks a year or so, you only get 250 rocks, so decide exactly what you want to do with that time, because it's literally all you got. There ain't any more. We don't get any more time.
Carl: Yeah, I'm going to do this next year – I've already started – but I really wish I had been more intentional, right? That's what I hear you saying, just being more intentional, more thoughtful about it. And also being really aware (which I think we should talk about in another episode) about the gap between what I say I value and what I'm actually doing.
I've been measuring my time recently and how I use time on RescueTime, and I totally lie to myself. And by exposing that inauthenticity, exposing that lie more often, I can close it and benefit. So yeah, I think just being more intentional – that's the message. In 2020 I just want to declare myself self-appointed king of permission-granting. So I want to grant everybody listening, we're granting you...
Michael: Grant us permission. Grant us, oh wise one.
Carl: I've got my granting wand.
Michael: Oh, man, for those who are listening on the podcast, he's waving the Sharpie like a wand.
Carl: Like my Harry Potter wand!
Michael: Like a legal scepter.
Michael: We are being ordained with permission.
Carl: I will grant you. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org for the permission that you seek and I will grant it. If it has to do with resting, I will grant you permission. You can print out your permission slip, you can show it to your spouse, your partner, your colleagues, whoever, like, permission granted to rest a little bit.
Carl: Amen, Michael. Thank you.
Michael: Thank you, Carl. Looking forward to a year of slightly more restfulness.
Carl: There you go. Amen.