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Episode 166 May 7, 2019 | 20min

Stepping Away to Think Better: Paul and Rich on Making Time for Creative Thinking

Paul and Rich discuss vacations and making time for the projects that matter.

Stepping Away to Think Better: Paul and Rich on Making Time for Creative Thinking

Show Notes

Prioritize growth and allow for risk: This week Paul and Rich come back from holiday to discuss the best ways to encourage creative thinking. We uncover the relationship between reducing clutter and problem solving. We discuss the importance of deadlines and prioritization as tools to better organize your thoughts and make time for the things that matter.

We also discuss the paradoxical trick for better growth and productivity: stepping away from our computer screens rather than towards them.

Paul Ford If it’s a long enough vacation round—like day four or five, you ease in, and you’re like, “I am ready to return. I have actually—I’ve got my balance back.” 

Rich Ziade It takes me three days to unwind. 

PF Mm hmm. 

RZ And then it—on the fourth day, I’m unwound. 

PF Yeah. 

RZ And then on the fifth day [yeah] I’m ready to go back—

PF You’re angry. 

RZ It’s a disaster. 

PF [Chuckles] Yeah. No, I know. 

RZ I’m a—I’m a—

PF But you—you come back in—what I love is you come back in—and this is not you, this is me, and—and everybody else but you come back into the office and you’re like, “I got it. I know what I’m gonna do. I’m just gonna hold onto this state of calm. And I am gonna just get my work done, and retain this positivity.” It usually lasts about 35 minutes. 

RZ [Scoffs] This is true. 

PF [Laughing] I don’t think it’s just me. I think it’s like—you get through that first cup of coffee and somebody’s like [yeah], [in nasal tone] “Hey, do you have a minute?” And you’re like, “Ok.” And it’s you usually saying that. 

RZ [Scoffs] Like an old woman. 

PF Then I’m in the room and I’m like, “Ok, that was it. I lost all of the good balance that [yeah] I had.” [Music fades in, plays alone for 18 seconds, ramps down.]

RZ Paul, I went on vacation recently. 

PF How was that? I went on vacation too, actually. 

RZ It’s—vacation is bullshit. Now. 

PF Is it? 

RZ It is bullshit now—

PF Hmmm.

[1:19]

RZ—because unless you’re really—and I’m not getting into how to unplug [music fades out] and how to like go to sleep without a phone next to your face. I’m not gonna get into any of that. 

PF Ah! I would say as a leader of a company it’s—it’s very hard to actually get away from the company. 

RZ It’s hard. Honestly, I don’t know if you need to be a leader of a company. 

PF Oh! No! Not with Slack on your phone. 

RZ Not with anything on your phone, dude. 

PF Yeah. I put my phone down for . . . much of a day. 

RZ You—you did? 

PF When I was on vacation. 

RZ Entirely? 

PF Yeah, I came back to—it was like 70 messages from you, going like, “You ok?” “You ok?” 

RZ Really? 

PF “Everything ok?” Yeah. 

RZ I—oh geez. 

PF [Laughs] For the record: I’m ok. 

RZ Paul’s ok. 

PF I’m doin’ fine. 

RZ Before we get into this [hmm], this—this topic, about resetting and about creativity, and ideas. 

PF Yeah. 

[2:07]

RZ And how we can do better. 

PF Yeah. 

RZ And I think we can give some decent advice even though neither you nor I are psychologists or cognitive behavioral therapists. 

PF Or even particularly mentally healthy. 

RZ [Laughs] Even healthy. We do want people to come to Postlight on May 21st. Do you know why? 

PF If I remember correctly, we’re—we’re throwing some kind of event. 

RZ A big event. 

PF Oh my goodness. 

RZ Postlight Labs. We’ve been humming away; steam has been comin’ outta the windows here at Postlight. 

PF We build things, and we—we—sometimes we gotta just scratch the itch. 

RZ No, there’s steam comin’ out the windows; [we’re scratchin’ the itch] we’re scratchin’ the—no, scra—We—we have been scratching the itch, Paul. [Yeah] And we said, “You know what? Let’s just go play.” We didn’t sit around and brainstorm around one big, massive idea. We actually—

PF Well, we—we did that. But then we decided that would be too much. 

RZ We did something smart, I think. 

PF Yeah, no, we said, “Let’s do lots of little projects. Let’s figure out—like let’s do some stuff and figure out what’s interesting.” 

RZ And what came out of the other side is that some of them aren’t so little. 

PF No, we came up—

RZ There’s some good stuff. 

PF—with some really fun ideas. So people should come to our office on May 21st, go to postlight.com/events. 

[3:11]

RZ That’s right. 

PF And come to our Labs announcement and see five or six little products, and the other thing to see is we live in a platform driven world right now. We got Airtable and Salesforce and Slack [yup] and these are [mm hmm] the things that you use all day, and—

RZ Things that power other things. 

PF And increasingly, as we experiment and do things, we’re building on top of those products. 

RZ Yes, we are. 

PF That’s just sort of the way the world’s going. So a little bit of conversation about that—we won’t talk too long. We’ll talk for a minute or two. 

RZ We’re gonna keep it short. Nobody wants to see us talk. 

PF But alright, so vacations. 

RZ Well, I—I think it’s less about vacations. 

PF Ok. 

RZ There’s that like—there’s—I saw that once this MIT research that’s going on [hmm], right? 

PF MIT. Research. 

RZ Yeah. At MIT Media Lab. 

PF Ok. 

RZ And what they were realizing—and this is kind of known that a lot of good, creative thinking happens in sort of this like sleep state [sure] when you’re kind of comin’ out of it, I guess, and then you’re able to kinda hold on to that thought, and then have it in your consciousness or something. 

PF You’re lucid. You know? You’re just kind of—you’re—you’re—

RZ You’re lucid and you’re not as cluttered. Right? 

PF Right, right. 

[4:15]

RZ Right? Like your brain isn’t as cluttered; the stimuli isn’t coming in; and—it was a weird experiment cuz they were like storing away whatever you were comin’ up with while you’re sleeping and then reading it back to you [mm hmm] during the day. Which is messed up, in my view but whatever [sure]. But, it dawned on me, it’s—some of the best ideas, some of the best thinking, some of the most crea—I’m—this isn’t even about relaxing, Paul. 

PF Mm. 

RZ This is: how do you step away? So that you can think about how to solve a problem creatively. It’s really hard to do right now. It’s really, really hard to do. What’s—what’s one of the first things you do if you’re kinda lost about a bit of information? 

PF You google it. 

RZ You google it. Right? And then the next thing you know, for whatever reason, you’re reading about Avengers

PF Mm hmm. 

RZ You didn’t plan to. You just—you end up down this hole, and you go in 12 directions [yeah] and at some points—

PF Well, you know, you hit that—you hit that link on the bottom of the page, ZergNet and it’s like the top 25 hottest superheroes and you’re like [yeah]—yeah, and then your—your pinky finger just slips on the touchpad [Rich laughs] . . . and suddenly you’re at ZergNet.

RZ But it’s not even just about you not being focuses, let’s say you are focused. Let’s say you are reading the right articles on the web, problem is is that you’re just pure input—

PF Listen—

RZ You’re pure—like just plug a wire right into your face. 

PF Well, nothing means anything, right? Like you think that there’s one more book to read that will solve your problems, or one thing—like—

RZ A lot of articles, a lot of articles like, “Here’s what you need to do—” 

PF That’s not how life works. 

[5:43]

RZ It’s not how life works. 

PF You painfully construct relationships with other human beings, and then you work on them, and work on them, hoping that you are a meaningful part of their lives. 

RZ Ok, you took it in a certain direction. 

PF No, I know. And meanwh—But everybody else is like, “Hey, check out this article about bullet journals on LinkedIn.” 

RZ What you’re talking about, actually, very much connects to what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is [that’s good] how do you—how do you get to that space to come up with really good ideas and think differently and solve problems differently? I don’t think this about relaxation and how like the color—the light coming off of your phone isn’t good for your sleep state. I’m just talking about how do you make better decisions? How do you come up with better ideas? There are a couple of states that I find myself in—and I wish I could tell you this was part of my plan, it’s not. After I’ve worked out [mm hmm], there’s blood flowing and [mm hmm] there’s probably music but I’m really not reading—I’m not really taking information, other than like the world around me, if I’m running, or whatever, and at the tail end of it, a flurry of ideas sort of unlock for me [ok]. And they’re not revolutionary, they’re just—they just come out of whatever’s happening—you know, whatever chemical reaction occurs. Sleep [mm hmm] is a huge one. When I wake up sometimes—sometimes I’m staring at the same thing for a long time, and then for whatever reason, I stare back at it again, just about—just before I’m about to fall asleep and I see it completely differently. 

PF See I think the mistake we make is comin’ to work. 

RZ We should just sleep and work out? 

PF Mm hmm. I mean this is always the com—this is the complicated part, right? You’re supposed to be zen but you don’t wanna get too zen. This is always to me the funny paradox of this like you gotta be in the moment but not too in the moment. Not so in the moment that you’re like, “Spreadsheets don’t matter.” 

RZ I—I—I guess—You know, when I think about spreadsheets, I’ve seen people use them in beautiful ways. 

[7:26]

PF Here’s what optimizes human behavior, you ready? 

RZ Ok. 

PF Ok. Th—this is me starting as a writer in my career, you know, I’ve—I’ve tried lots of different devices: blank pen, use a pencil—

RZ You write a lot! 

PF I do. 

RZ You scribble a lot when people are talking to you. 

PF I do. I like to write. I think by writing. 

RZ Yeah. 

PF Ok, so that’s a big—That’s a big thing for me. If I can get time and space to write, I can organize my thoughts. I draw a lot, actually. I draw a lot of boxes and arrows [mm hmm] but then one, true organizing principle in life is deadlines because what happens is then you have to prioritize, and then you move things out, and you go, “I need to do that thinking.” 

RZ Yup. 

PF “No matter what happens.” So, you know, I have recently written a very big article for a big magazine. 

RZ Congratulations, Paul. 

PF Thank you. It’s about 5,000 words. So it’s not too huge. 

RZ That’s pretty huge. 

PF It’s a large [sighs]—

RZ Sounds like we’re talkin’ feature story. 

PF Yeah, we are talkin’ feature story. 

RZ Mmm! A little—little drop—droppin’ some hints here. 

[8:19]

PF So let’s be clear: I’m doing this while I’m doing my other tasks at Postlight which God knows what my job is but it sure as fuck does take a lot of time. 

RZ Yup. Yup. 

PF And so I also have to write an article for a national magazine which—I’m not gonna go into the why of it but I’ll just tell you: it’s not easy. 

RZ I can’t imagine it is. 

PF It’s not easy. You gotta do a lot of things in order to make a good national magazine article happen. And I had to make a deal with myself—I had a couple of months to get my thinking together. First of all, I just knew that I needed a couple of months to just think. And I just needed to walk around and wonder what this was. There was no way to sit down—I outlined it 20 different times. 

RZ Oh! Did you do that thought? Did you really walk around and sort of hands clasped behind your back and just sort of in the park? 

PF Every single bus ride. Every walk. Absolutely. 

RZ You shut the phone off? 

PF Yeah! Or I read things or I researched or I looked—or I favored things on Twitter. I wrote how—I probably wrote 20 outlines. And they were all in pieces. They were all scattered [sure]. And you’re just trying to get a map of your own brain [yup] but that pressure kept me thinking. 

RZ The deadline? 

PF The deadline. So, vacation: you go away on vacation. What’s the deadline? You’re gonna have to go back to work. You have a couple days now to actually organize your thoughts and you know you’re in a scattered state. 

RZ No, I wanna—I wanna pitch a product, real quick. 

PF Pitch a product. 

RZ I—I do find when I have to get a proposal done or I have to write something, it’s similar: deadline. 

PF Mm hmm. 

[9:40]

RZ I do find myself—my mouse is clicking over, as soon as like I get a block, I go to like something else, I go to Mail, I go to Slack, I go to—you know, there’s just an article that came out how Slack is actually incredibly counterproductive in companies. 

PF Well, sure, it’s all these little distractions, right? But, again, I don’t think there is this perfect state of zen-like bliss where you are free of distractions. I think that thing—what is the failure here is a failure of prioritization. Instead—cuz you don’t prioritize—

RZ But it’s so tempting! 

PF Of course. You don’t prioritize the hard thinking. Look, we know this as leaders of the company. The number one thing I do at Postlight isn’t the things that I do on the floor, it’s that I drive growth to this company. I bring people in; I bring ideas in; and I turn that into great engagements that people work on. I’m proud of that. You too! You do the same thing. But we spend a lot of our time, day to day, like the—one of the most meaningful things we can do for this company is have this conversation, record it, and put it out in the world. Right? 

RZ Yeah. 

PF We—if—if—if you told me what we really should be doing, we should probably do, you know, ten times as many podcasts. We don’t do that cuz we gotta run the company as well. And you’re always dealing with these—what—what we don’t have, as leaders, what’s always a challenge, is to prioritize that time and that thinking and that space, and to give yourself a deadline for it. 

RZ It’s hard. 

PF You know how we do it? We have off-sites. We go to breathers. [Hmm] We get the managing partners together. 

RZ Get—let’s get out of the—the—the—get off the treadmill, right? 

PF We tend not to and I think it’s cuz we’re young and small. We don’t give homework. We don’t say, “Come with your five bullet points.” We still manage a lot through conversation. 

RZ I think you have to. I mean I—I—I think, you know, for some—for this to resonate with someone who is, you know, trying to do better work, whether they’re a designer, or an engineer, or a [mm hmm] product managers, and whatnot, you know, how do you step off of that grind—

PF Well, you gotta give yourself deadlines for the bigger things in life. And then you gotta re-prioritize so that the smaller things get deprioritized. You gotta say, “I wanna be better at this.” And then you need to tell your friend and they need to say [right, right], “Ok, I’ll check in with you.” 

[11:36]

RZ This is stuff that often falls under life goals or [I did this once] professional growth and—

PF I used to have a weekly check-in with a friend where we shared a Google Spreadsheet and it was all like our life and professional goals. Neither one of us had a full-time job. 

RZ How’d it go? 

PF Really well. For a couple of months. 

RZ Really? Really? 

PF Yeah! Then she got a job and I was doing some other stuff and it drifted off but while it was on, it was like [interesting]—I was extremely accountable cuz we’re lookin’ at the shared Google Doc and I’m like, “I’m not takin’—” And she’s like, “Why didn’t that go from uh, you know, green to red? Or from red to green? You said it would.” 

RZ Oh so you answered to her and she answered to you. 

PF Well it was accountability, right? [Yeah] Like I didn’t—it wasn’t like she was my boss but she was my outboard brain. 

RZ People try that with games. There’s gaming like calorie counting is a game [mm hmm] for a lot of people, it’s like sport, almost but it’s to achieve a goal. I—I—I guess this isn’t about productivity to me. It’s about creativity. 

PF Yeah, there’s no su—Productivity is this myth. Here’s what I love: I love craft; I love making things; I like seeing things get made. 

RZ Yes. Yes. 

PF Ok? Productivity is the—would be the things that—that get out of the way of that process. 

RZ Yes. 

PF It’s not some set of tips and tricks. That’s what makes this conversation actually challenging which is like there is no system. Remember we had Alan Burdick on the show, he’d written a book about a time. 

[12:51]

RZ Yeah and he was late five years on it. 

PF He was like five, 10 years late on his book. 

RZ Which is nice. 

PF [Chuckles] Right? It was about scheduling. And there’s so many books about productivity that never get delivered to the editor, right? [Rich laughs boisterously] This is real! 

RZ It’s very real. 

PF Instead of like that just becoming this like weird paradox, I think it’s actually fundamental to the whole thing: there is no magic secret. You know what to-do list works the best? Is the one—

RZ I was about to ask you: do you use a to-do list? 

PF Sure. 

RZ You live by it? 

PF I switch in and out of to-do lists all the time. I use whatever’s convenient and will [ok] keep me accountable. 

RZ Ok. 

PF What I know is I need to be accountable to the people around me. 

RZ Ok. 

PF So, whatever’s gonna work. And what’s hard is that in my role I’ve got my CRM to-do list; my Basecamp to-do list; my personal to-do list; my, you know, and my family to-do list. 

RZ What do you use, by the way? 

PF For me? We’ve talk about it: Org-mode Emacs but increasingly I’m using—now I’m using Tasks in um [oh ok] just connected to Gmail because I just need everything in one place. 

RZ Ok. I’m a Todoist fan. 

PF No, I know you are. 

RZ It’s very good. It has a lovely shortcut key app for the Mac [yeah] so I highly recommend it. Stepping away is very hard for me. It’s very hard for many, many people, considering you have this amazing computer in your pocket that is ready to show you anything you want [mm hmm]. It’s very hard to step away. I do believe some of the best ideas I’ve ever had were the result of stepping away. 

[14:12]

PF This is the paradox of being an entrepreneur at a small company which is that the needs of the firm are such that you need regular, constant interaction with lots of people, and the best way that you can drive growth to the organization is to go away for awhile. 

RZ And that’s—it feels counterintuitive, frankly. To do that. It feels precarious to do that. 

PF It’s not just feels, like it actually is a little bit. The reality is that you are kind of needed, and it’s—everyone’s like, “Well, you should be able to go away for a week.” It doesn’t really work that way. It’s you make a choice. 

RZ Yeah. 

PF You make a choice that you’re gonna prioritize the growth and the—and you allow the risk. 

RZ Yeah. 

PF And that’s really hard to do. 

RZ It’s very hard to do. It’s very hard to do. 

PF I mean, look: if you’re a product manager or an engineer or something like that [sighs], what are we really saying to you? We’re saying: you do need to take that minute; you need to—first, all the priorities of your day to day are real. And they won’t go away. This is the thing: I think there’s this great fantasy that’s like, “You should go to the woods and think for a minute.” It doesn’t really work that way. Your stuff is still gonna be there. Things are gonna be happening. People are gonna be checking things off and putting assignments for you in on the thing—in—in, you know, in GitHub or in—in Basecamp. 

RZ Lemme make a—lemme—let’s give a tip. Let’s—we love to give tips, right Paul? 

PF I like tips. Tips. 

RZ Ok. Yeah, sure, you could order in your lunch. 

PF Mm hmm. 

[15:29]

RZ Order it to pick it up. Get up, go, outside, even if it’s cold. I do this with you all the time. I’m like, “Get up off the—[yeah you don’t] your face is glued to that screen.” 

PF I know but sometimes I just want that good 18-hour working session. 

RZ Hah, that’s fine. That’s fine but it’s so important to do. It really is. You’re just not designed to be going like that and—and sometimes I write that same email that I need to write back again and again and then I realize, I need to get away for a minute and it just pours out like an hour later. 

PF Sure. 

RZ I just gotta get away. And I say, that—what does that look like? For someone that’s working hard at whatever? I don’t know. Go to Duane Reade. Go pick up your—your—your deodorant or something. Just go do a thing. Just go do a thing. It’s actually so meaningful. You write better. And I—I find you think better. If you’re coding, it gets a little tighter if you just step away for a minute. And by step away, it doesn’t mean go game. For 20 minutes on some multiplayer game. Just get away. Get away in a way where the stimuli isn’t demanding much of you. And then what comes back is sort of this weird it’s like a reset. Not a hard reset. But it’s a bit of reset. And it’s very meaningful to me. 

PF You know the piece of advice that we could give people here? The thing that’s actually, I think, pretty valuable, is that everyone’s out there telling you there’s an answer to personal productivity; and getting in the zone; and staying in the zone; and doing all [yeah] stuff. It’s not real. 

RZ It’s not real. 

PF It’s not real. You’re always gonna be in a state of mild agitation and as you get older and you got kids, like I’m thinking about, “What are my kids doing?” And, “I gotta make these phone calls.” And, “There’s a client [yup] I gotta talk to.” 

RZ Yup. 

PF That’s just not gonna change.

RZ Yup. 

[17:11]

PF And so what you gotta do is just learn to roll with it [yup] and then, you know, Rich is right: like go take a break, look at the sun, and no one’s dying. 

RZ No one’s dying. And I—I’m the worst at this, I’m always thinking the house is on fire. But it’s not. Just get up. 

PF So, yeah, no, look: this one is a little bit scrambled—

RZ It’s a little anti-technology, actually, is what we’re saying—

PF I think—

RZ I’m unrealistic about the [in mocking tone], “Put your phone away—” 

PF That’s the thing—

RZ Forget that! Just get up for a minute! 

PF Here’s what we’re saying: there’s no answer. 

RZ There’s no answer. 

PF There’s no—there’s no goo—there’s no perfect to-do list manager. There’s no optimum number of times to go outside. There’s no—

RZ But get up! 

PF Get up! Talk to a friend [music fades in]. 

RZ Talk to a friend. 

PF You know, I will say: I made a little goal recently to just have more conversations. 

RZ Interesting. 

PF And it’s a good one. I just say, “Hi,” to more people walkin’ down the street. 

RZ Oh that’s—that’s creepy. But that’s fine. 

PF No, just like—if somebody—you know, or the guy behind the counter. 

RZ “How are you?” 

[18:04]

PF Yeah instead of just like [interesting], [gruffly]“Meh!” You know? Just like [yeah], “Hey, wait a minute, there’s a reason to like smile, say hello, and be friendly because I wanna make sure my conversation count is up.” 

RZ That might be even better advice. 

PF Yes! I mean just like interact with humans. They’re ok. They’ll mostly smile back and the ones who don’t, don’t take it personally. 

RZ Yeah. I enjoyed this podcast, Paul. 

PF Me too! I feel a lot better.

RZ It’s a little different. 

PF I’m gonna go walk outside, and I may never come back. 

RZ [Laughs] Ok. That’s the risk we take. 

PF [Laughs] Look: hey, if anybody needs anything like a platform build or a product or an API or any of the things that make technology technology, Postlight builds them. We take product teams. We put them together for you and we make your thing a reality. Sometimes we do it in three or four months, sometimes we work with you for a year or more. 

RZ Yes! 

PF That’s who we are. We’re pretty good at it. 

RZ And just—just to be clear: the people at Postlight never get off their chairs, and work the whole time [laughs]. 

PF No, they are encouraged to be healthy and in fact—

RZ It’s actually a very healthy environment. 

PF We deliver our stuff and we go home in the evenings. We’re [yes] very proud of that [yes]. You don’t have to be under stress all the time. 

RZ True. 

PF So, come work here. Come talk to us about products that you’d like to build. Get in touch with us about all the thing that you need, we’re here for you. 

RZ [email protected]

PF [email protected] 

RZ Have a great week!

PF Thanks! And remember: May 21st, postlight.com/events. It’s Labs! Come check out the Labs at 101 5th Avenue in New York City. In the evening. Bye! [Music ramps up, plays alone for four seconds, fades out to end.]