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Aww Shift

Feb 21, 2023

In today’s episode, our guest is Nick Sonnenberg. He is an entrepreneur, Inc. columnist, and guest lecturer at Columbia University. He is also the author of "Come Up for Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work." He is the founder and CEO of Leverage, a leading operational efficiency consultancy that helps companies implement his CPR® Business Efficiency Framework. 

[2:27] Why should I listen to you? 

You’d listen to me because the stuff that I’m interested in is the most valuable thing that anyone could give someone, which is the gift of time. 

[3:55] Can you walk us through your journey? 

I called my book "Come Up for Air" because the first thing I hear people say is that they're drowning in work, especially in recent years. I’ve been drowning in work for a long time, so everything I talk about is not from theory but from what I have experienced as a person. I know the pain of growing a company and working 100 hours a week; before then, I worked as a high-frequency trader on Wall Street, where I worked my ass off too. But one thing I've done exceptionally well is training myself. I know what drowning in work feels like, so my company does operational efficiency consulting and training for teams and other companies. We brainstorm with the team and come up with a new technology. It could be a new way to use that technology and it could have nothing to do with it but for me, time is the most precious resource and it’s so easy to fall into the trap of doing things the same way in an inefficient manner because you are used to it. 

[6:20] How did you balance that? 

I've always been passionate about time. As a high-frequency trader, I build algorithms for computers to trade stocks at micro and nanosecond speeds. I gained an appreciation for the value of time because a microsecond could mean a million. I decided to leave finance after 8 years, and I developed a freelancer marketplace where we do tasks and projects for people under the umbrella of giving back time. In the first year, we grew to 7-figure revenue with 150 team members fully remote. It sounds good, but under the hood, we had three-quarters of a million dollars in debt and almost half a million in losses. I was close to bankruptcy, but I decided not to because I knew where we were. I had a game plan on how to fix it. I stuck to it and things started turning around. After a while, I decided to pivot that company from a freelancer marketplace to leveraging operational efficiency, consulting, and training, which is the core of my book. I was able to do that because I know what it feels like to be drowning. 

[11:45] How does somebody build into releasing? 

I think part of it is a systems issue and a people's issue. Trust comes in different levels. You can trust someone on an ethical level but not on another, and that causes a lot of friction and anxiety. You have to be aware of the lack of trust coming from an ethical issue, a competence issue, a poor process, or a system issue. But documenting the right way to do something is a great way to kind of lessen the stress. They are not going to do it the same way you do, but as long as you’ve built some kind of process and SOPs, they will get it right. Some things are harder to outsource to others, but you can probably get rid of 80% of your plate. Just invest your time in documenting things the way you want them done. 

[16:10] How does one decide whether to keep tasks in a submission on the board or off the board?

I think anything that gives you joy or taps into your unique ability should be kept, and anything outside of that ain't a good candidate. I think there's a famous Ink magazine article about Mark Cuban, who likes doing his laundry. Now, his hourly rate is much higher than whatever it would cost to outsource. But if it gives you joy, then you’re not touching that. One of your unique abilities can also be hosting a podcast, and that's a really good use of your time. However, there may be other things about the podcast that you don’t feel great about, like editing, and you can  So that's the way I like to think about those things. So it’s like buying back your time. 

[18:10] Do you think people can expand beyond their points? 

I think that if you get more breathing room and free up time, you can be very efficient. Sometimes you're so constrained because you're just so inefficient. You're on a scavenger hunt looking for stuff, and you're working 60–80 hours a week, and you know, that affects the quality of your work. It affects your mood. So, if you can make work easier, do better work, take on more new projects, and be a better business partner, employee, spouse, and so on. 

[19:45] What are some things that you've seen people practice throughout the last few years and does your book provide a solution? 

I think that there are some personal preferences with some of the individual productivity stuff. I think that there's probably something in general with time blocking. However, I think that it will help if you can wake up early and also have a good morning routine. Another thing is a lot of people talk about saving time, but optimizing time is very important. It's not just about saving time but optimizing time. Also, the underlying principle of my book is based on how you can create systems and processes to optimize and retrieve whatever you need to find as fast as possible. 

[25:20] How do you get your team organized in a way that gets the work done faster and more efficiently? 

This has got to be part of your culture. Don't try to fix everything all at once. Different parts of your business have different amounts of return on time as we were talking about before. So it might be teaching everyone how to use email properly and teaching them how to get to Inbox Zero. So just prioritize it so that you do one thing at a time and start seeing the benefit. Get a little breathing room and reinvest so that you can free up space for the next thing. Take as much of that breathing room as you can so that you're not necessarily telling people to work fewer hours, but do it and clean up the next thing. 

[28:20] Does the book give someone an insight into where they can get started?

So every business is different, and what I can tell you from my experience is that 80–90% of people start by learning how to use email properly. The benefit of knowing how to use Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Asana is super important, but it takes a little bit more effort to roll these out because it requires everyone to adopt them simultaneously and be involved. Everyone uses Gmail or Outlook, and it's one of the most misused tools out there. I talked about that in my book. The book took me four years to write. I was running a company, but I spent a lot of time on it. I can guarantee you that if you just follow the book, you'll be saving a lot of hours. Also on the website “Come up for,"  you can get another 50 to 100 pages of additional content. You also get checklists, calculators, and PDFs as bonus resources in case you want to go deeper. 

[31:35] What promise did God make to the world when he created you? 

The world will be a more efficient place after I'm gone. 

Key Quotes

[15:00-15:03] It’s not about the time spent but it’s about the time invested. 

[21:57-22:00] Don't just save time, optimize it. 

How to connect with Nick Sonnenberg