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Chris Danilo: Overcome Procrastination, Increase Productivity
I am super excited to have Chris Danilo on with us. I ran into Chris by my need to learn more and to hear what other people are talking about around productivity. I found him on Medium and I liked what he had to say. It was an article that I was reading around procrastination so perhaps we will talk a little bit about that. You’re saying, “Who is Chris Danilo?” Let me tell you, he is obsessed with education. He helps education companies be more productive and he uses lean, agile and empirically-based learning and industrial models to make that happen. Maybe we’ll hear a little bit more about that from him. He says he’s an autodidact who likes to build, scheme, goof and burn a lot of energy. I’m sure there’s a lot more than Chris can tell us himself. Chris, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Penny. I’m super pumped to be here.
What is an autodidact?
It means somebody who likes to teach themselves stuff.
What do you do when you’re goofing?
I tend to have an incredible amount of energy. I’m a person who needs a lot of movement. My mother loved this when I was a child. Goofing is part of that. It is one of this fun and can be educational and useful too, like playtime for small animals. The same thing with playtime with small humans. Goofing off, adventures, and all these kinds of things help me maintain my sanity and feel that I can have fun and be a super productive human being at the same time.
It seems like you are a super productive human being. A lot of those terms that you use lean and agile, how did that come to be part of the way that you think and do things?
Some people know lean, some people know agile, so I will break it down as quickly as I can. I discovered these kinds of methods. I didn’t invent all of this. I’m a person who finds things that work and then implements them. I’m good at stealing other people’s stuff. I wrote a blog post on why people should steal stuff. The way that I got into this was a big problem. I was running a multimillion-dollar pediatric neuroscience lab at Penn State University. It’s one of the top research institutions in the country. It’s one of the best neuroscience programs. I had a bunch of people who were reporting to me and I hired them because I had a lot of work to do. I was like, “I have all this work to do.” I’m going to hire a bunch of people and then it will go away. I quickly learned my first management lesson, which was management bottleneck.
When you have a lot of stuff to do and you have a lot of people to do it, if you don’t give them the skills and the knowledge to do this work, you can quickly become a bottleneck and a problem for getting all this stuff done by the deadline. By failing projects, I was forced to understand how people work together and how I can create systems that help people work more efficiently with their time. This was the birth for me into my career into making people more efficient and systems and operations and the nuts and bolts of how we build important stuff for other people. I discovered after getting more into the private sector, agile is used for software development. It’s focused on small iterative cycles. You’re building, you’re constantly releasing software instead of these long waterfall methods on projects where people are building this huge thing for a long amount of time.
I’ll give you an example. I used to consult for a government client and we were building a piece of software for them and without doing an agile project where you’re constantly putting it in front of stakeholders, you can have an issue where, “We built everything to spec. All this stuff is great. We have all your features built in there. It looks great. It does exactly what you wanted.” The government client says, “This is great, but we can’t use it.” What do you mean? We just spent $600,000. It’s everything you asked for it and then they say, “We are the government. We can’t use this software because we use Internet Explorer 5 and none of this is going to work with that software. You’re like, “How did we lose all this money?” You learn a lot when you jump into these kinds of projects but agile is very focused on short iterative cycles that involve stakeholders. Lean is very much a model that focuses on minimizing waste to keep productivity margins high. That’s just a quick example of some of them and why they’re useful.
Let’s talk about small iterative cycles. You don’t have to be in application development, which was my background as well and I learned a lot as well from that process. How does that apply to every person in the way that they approach anything that they do to be more productive?
You have to be able to start without seeing the ending. Click To Tweet I tend to use this myself and I said this once. I was sitting on a panel at Penn State and it was an Entrepreneur Week or something. I said this to an audience of people and my jaw dropped because I realized that no one is thought to use it in their day-to-day lives. I was surprised. I was like, “We’re always using this thing. How come no one’s using it in their day-to-day lives?” A software deliverable is a clear example of a project and a deadline and a thing that needs to be built. Other stuff like your wedding or a birthday party you’re throwing or other day-to-day life stuff, for some reason, we don’t put those projects or tasks through the same framework. For whatever reason, our brain doesn’t consider going there.
Maybe because most people aren’t application developers. They don’t think like that anyway.
That could be true. That’s one thing that’s an issue that I see with new employees. They’re not always trained to think about management. They’re not trained to think about the project as a whole. You’re hitting on something that’s important which is having the management skills or chops to think about the overarching project and maybe what method might be more effective for it. Maybe they’re not thinking about it holistically.
It brings up two things because I was thinking of small iterative cycles. One of your blogs was around procrastination and sometimes we get held up because whatever we’re doing seems so big and we don’t break it down into smaller pieces. That’s what small iterative cycles are. It’s taking a bigger development project and it’s breaking it down into smaller deliverables.
It’s exactly what it is. I feel like I’m telling business owners this. I’m telling people this. I’m telling kids this. One of my big projects right now, I’m operationalizing the largest Lego Minecraft, science tech expos for families. I’m processing all of these events on how we operate. I’m on the floor working with kids a lot. Lego is a great example. Here’s this giant thing that an adult built. It’s so unapproachable because an adult built it and it’s huge. You can’t even think about it. It’s three-dimensional. How do you even approach that problem as a seven-year-old? They don’t know that there is a software out there that they can use to help design. They don’t know that there are other people who have done it before. They could show them the way. They just know that it’s huge, it’s cool and they could never do it themselves. I focus on one small part of it and I was like, “How would you build this?”
We get these pieces then I have to find those and then I have to put them together but then I had to make sure that they were the right color. They try to explain like, “How about this piece over here?” then they can usually approach it. That’s the lesson, which is big hairy audacious goals are surprised, made up of small, actionable, achievable goals. This lesson is so important to teach at all levels of humanity. To kids, to adults, to parents, to teachers, to business owners, to everybody. I feel like I need to constantly hit people in the head with this to remind them of these things because the procrastination thing is huge. It is not always a motivation. Sometimes it’s a morale issue. Breaking things up into small achievable things can create momentum and increased morale. If you’re curious about success on your project, you’ll consider breaking big things into small things.
It puts it within your control. Many people get overwhelmed with these big tasks that they’re doing or projects. One of the things that I always do is I tell them to focus on what’s next. Break it down into that next component and look at what’s next. What’s your approach when they’re overwhelmed when they look at it? How do you handle that?
Before any tactical stuff, the first step always is recognizing that you’re overwhelmed. Labeling it with a word, understanding the physical feelings of what’s happening and the biology of what that feels like. What your brain does is it goes into panic mode. What’s happening on the inside, which is scary because you’re like, “What is this?” You might be experiencing the fight-or-flight response. In this modern world, we don’t have lions jumping out to trigger this, we have deadlines and budgets and all the other things that are triggering the same ancient biological response. How do you deal with it? That’s usually the starting point. Let’s confront this. This is a normal thing that people experience is being overwhelmed with a project this size. It’s totally okay. The next thing we’re going to do is talk about what’s happening in your body. Your blood flow is moving into your arms and your legs. Your digestion stops. Your metabolism stops. All of these things are happening. Understand that it’s okay. You’re going to have to feel the feeling and then after you feel the feeling, now you get to make the choice.
The next thing is, what are you going to do about it? That’s the part where people can be a little bit more empowered and they feel like, “I got through it.” The problem is when people make decisions either in that moment or before that moment because they don’t want to experience that. They have to know that it’s not going to feel good. “Yes, it’s going to feel weird. It’s going feel impossible, but you have to be able to start without seeing the ending.” That’s this huge realization that people have to have. If you can get people to start, it’s usually easier to get them to keep going and take that second step and the third step and fourth step.
The starting is the hardest part. Be careful about making any decisions in that heightened state of overwhelm without recognizing what it is. We don’t make good decisions when we’re emotional. A lot of people get caught up in that and then they make mistakes, so they waste time. That’s why we decided to procrastinate because it’s so much easier to procrastinate than it is to start that thing that seems so hairy, big, or annoying or whatever it might be.
It’s easy to get caught in the habit of “Tomorrow.” Tomorrow is the best day to do it, always. It’s the most bizarre thing. I use exercise as an example a lot because it relates to a lot of people. Most people are fine. They know that they could be more in shape or they have a goal in mind that they want to approach. It’s like losing a lot of weight or gaining a lot of muscle or they have some cardio goal. Most people have an idea of what they want, but they don’t know how to approach it because they haven’t defined it. It seems like, “I don’t know how I would get there,” or “I don’t trust myself to get to that place where I can be consistent about it.” This is a totally different conversation. This is about motivation and about putting your shorts on every day. The hardest part of going into the gym is putting your shorts on. If you make yourself make the decision on whether or not you’re going to go.
Big, hairy, and audacious goals are made up of small, actionable, and achievable goals. Click To Tweet When it’s cold and you got to get out of bed. That’s the time you left it to make the decision of like, “Am I going to go to the gym?” Forget it. You’re never going to win. You got to trick yourself. You have to beat yourself. You have to make it make sense. That means going and finding a gym buddy who’s going to keep you accountable. There are other stuff that are external to your brain that you have to employ, that you have to do, in order to get yourself through the difficult decisions. You know in that moment you’re not going to be able to do it. Many people have a track record of this. If you have lost all trust in yourself, that’s a problem. We got to address it and we got to rebuild trust with yourself. To rebuild the trust you have with your ability to execute. If you have a history of not being able to execute, that’s going to be tough. We got to talk about that. We’re going to be real about it.
It comes back to starting. You got to remove the space, the activities, the actions and all the things that happened between now and starting it. It’s putting on the shorts. It’s getting in the car. It’s all of those things that then make it more and more difficult. The more space and energy that you have to undertake in order to start something, the less likely you are to start it.
It’s all about removing excuses. That’s an exercise that I ask people to do all the time which is, “Write all the reasons why this isn’t going to happen.”
I do that too. I was reading your stuff and talking to you. I feel like I’m on the same wavelength. That’s important that people identify and recognize. That we not only recognize when we’re overwhelmed but we recognize what our excuses are so that we can go, “I caught myself. That’s an excuse.”
One of these exercises that I do is put together all excuses. If you have multiple people in the room, it’s great because if you have all this diversity of excuses, you will see the same excuse but the inverted reasoning. You’ll see somebody who says, “I’m too young,” or “I’m too old,” or “I’m too fat,” or “I’m too skinny.” You see it all there together and you’re like, “These are clearly excuses.” They’re all contradicting. No one would be able to get out of that mess. You’ve designed your way out of it. You’ve excused your way out of it. No one could start if you keep these things up. It’s a fun exercise to have and it’s also a nice piece of art. If you create your list of excuses and then cross them all out and then put it on your wall, there you go. It’s a nice little reminder every single day like, “This is the thing I just told myself. That’s an excuse.”
How do you help people? What’s a tip that you help people to get past those excuses?
The first thing is recognizing that it’s an excuse and then figuring out, “What’s the mechanics? How did you get to this?” One of my favorite things to do is to bring other people. If you have a buddy, it’s easier to get through it together because you’re accountable to somebody else. A lot of people have already built that relationship of lack of trust with themselves so if they have somebody else that they’re accountable to, it’s more likely that they’ll do it. I call it an accountability buddy. This is your person, your partner for helping you execute, which is huge. That would be your first step. The most critical part is understanding that you’ve built this relationship with yourself and taking these smaller steps. Maybe breaking big things down into small things to help build your motivational momentum.
You got to break the pattern. If you’ve been living certain behavior patterns, you got to break it before you can start a new one.
The other part that’s helpful about having somebody else is they can call you out.
Anyone that you have in your life isn’t going to necessarily work as an accountability buddy. You got to make sure that you pick somebody who’s willing to call you out.
If you’re picking a person that maybe you don’t trust to do that, you’re just enabling the same behavior. It’s up to you. The thing that I continue to tell people is you’ve got a choice and it’s okay if you mess up. That’s another huge part of this is you have built this relationship with yourself of not being able to execute. After you admit that, the next thing you do is understand that you’re not going to able to fix it tomorrow. You’re going to have to record the data. This is like bricks in the wall. Every time you do something that you wanted to do, it’s a brick in this wall and over time you will have this strong brick wall.
If you can get people to start, it's easier to get them to keep going and take that next step. Click To Tweet You could say, “I’m sure. Look how strong it is. I’m confident in my ability to execute.” The more gaps you have, more sick days that you miss your training, the weaker that wall is, the less confident you are going to be in your own ability. It’s small everyday daily actions. How do you break it down to be actionable and achievable? The most critical part of that is feeling the momentum of like, “I have been doing this and look at this and look at my calendar. I crossed off every day for 200 days. This is totally unlike me. I’m a new person now.” It takes a little while, but you have to be able to do it and you have to be able to see it.
That’s key. That’s why people do it and they make the crosses on the physical calendar that they can look at. It is important to be able to see the progress and then also to celebrate it. Recognize yourself for it. That’s another thing people that have trouble doing because there are a lot of overachievers. We’re on the next thing versus taking some time to pat yourself on the back and recognize the progress that you are making.
I can’t even stress enough how important measuring stuff is in every field. In science, in software, in anything. I’ll take agile because we were talking about it. You don’t measure projects on time. If you’re talking about how much stuff you’re going to do, we use these points. There are a couple ways to do it. One way to do it is what’s called planning poker. The development team says, “This task is worth one point. It’s worth three points. It’s worth ten points.” We use a modified Fibonacci sequence to do this and it means it’s exponential. It’s based on uncertainty. Have we done this before? Have we not done this before? Do we know how long it’s supposed to take? Do we have people in the team that can execute it or do we have to learn a new skill to do it? How much uncertainty is around this task? If there’s a lot of uncertainty, there tends to be an incredible amount of uncertainty because of all the things we didn’t know that we did know. As the scale goes up, you’re not moving one, two, three, four, five. You’re moving, one, three, five, ten. It goes like that. When I’m building a new agile team, I don’t start with actual points because the point is not to do that yet. The point is to get them into the habit of scoring and whatnot.
The first thing I’d do is use t-shirt sizes. Small, medium, large, extra-large and then they get the habit and then from there, you can talk about points. The idea is you’re not measuring on time. If you think that it’s can take you an hour to do something, it almost never takes an hour so why are we still measuring on time? Humans, in general, are terrible at this. If we measured by points, I can then see at the end of a sprint. We’re saying, “We’re going to work for two weeks on this project, on this deliverable. At the end of the two weeks, we’re going to have this thing that we can put it in front of a customer. We’re going to have a product that’s shippable.” We get to that point and we say, “Look at this. We scored 150 points and we have a metric.” We have a baseline, and over the next couple of weeks what happens? Every single time the score goes up. Same people, the same amount of time, the points go up every single time. They almost double and then they almost doubled again. It’s crazy how fast it happens. Once you start measuring stuff, you can see your velocity, you can how fast you’re going, and it’s encouraging. It’s helpful.
People know what they’re working on and what everybody else is working on. They know how to help. They know what’s the most important and they’re measuring their output and it becomes a goal. If you have these never-ending projects, impossible is not motivating. It’s discouraging. It’s demoralizing but just hard enough, that’s motivating. That’s challenging. Challenging is motivating. You want to be breaking stuff into pieces and setting goals that are attainable and then slowly increasing them and not getting big eyes and saying, “We’re going to take the whole thing because that can be damaging for the momentum and morality.” Even if you’re just working on a project yourself.
It’s interesting to think about that in terms of not measuring by time and the tracking. I’m a believer in tracking too because that’s what creates awareness and sometimes unless we track, we have a skewed sense of awareness. I try to help people like, “Let’s track what you’re doing with the time that you have. Let’s see what you’re using your time for.” Mostly you get people who don’t want to track things because they say they don’t have the time to track it. They feel like it takes more time to track. Do you ever get that?
This is common because agile requires a certain level of discipline. It’s easy to get into the flow and then say like, “We’re going to skip this meeting. We don’t need to because we know what to do.” It’s easy to fall into that trap. It’s difficult because it requires discipline, but the discipline puts you on track. Maybe it does cost you a little bit more. Look at it realistically. Maybe it does cost you an extra hour of your life and it costs you an extra hour of your entire team’s life. When you’re running a software company, you probably paying these developers $100 an hour. $100 an hour times five developers, that’s $500 an hour. That was a $500 meeting plus your manager. That’s tough to justify. I get it but understand that over the next couple of weeks, the next couple of months, your performance is going to go up and it’s going to pay off later. That’s the tricky part. You’re pushing, you’re spinning the flywheel and it’s heavy right now, but in a couple of weeks, you’re going to be like, “It’s not even close. It’s worth the meeting.”
Discipline costs time, but it pays dividends.
It pays later and that’s what people aren’t happy with. They want to see it now.
You want things now. We don’t like to wait for things. We’re an impatient culture.
You have to be able to start without seeing the finish. You have to be able to trust that it’s going to work. My reasoning or rationale is like, “Let’s pick the amount you’re willing to risk.” Let’s pick up a small project that you’re willing to say like, “If it doesn’t go perfectly, it’s not the end of the world.” Let’s test it and we’ll do it my way. Full blur, discipline, everything’s going to work the way that I want it to and if I’m wrong, I’ll go away. You never have to talk to me again and you can write me a bad review somewhere on the internet. “If I’m right, we get to a bigger project. Not all of your projects because that would be scary for you and I get that you’re a person who has a lot of responsibilities you’re answering to a lot of costs and other things that are associated with work. How about this? We start small and then we go and build a little bit more. We’ll figure the same method.”
The starting is the hardest part. Click To Tweet Tell us what do you have that is coming up and how can people reach you?
The fastest way to figure out what I’m doing is ChrisDanilo.com and you could go to my slash now page. That’s a descriptor of what I’m doing as you may be able to tell I’m a Derek Sivers’ follower. That’s exactly what I’m doing and then all my projects are there. The front page of my website is my blog so if you’re trying to hear more stuff about this, that’s the place to go.
I see that you’re in the process of calibrating your BS filter here. It’s what it says on the Now page because I had to check it out and see what’s on there.
The reason with that is the information age. There is so much stuff going around. The new skill isn’t being able to recall stuff or execute, the new skill is being able to tell what’s true or not. What’s real data, what’s not real data?
What’s real and what’s important? What’s noise and what’s essential? What is it that you need to be listening to and what’s the noise that gets interrupting you? Chris, it was fantastic to have you here and talk about some of the tips and tricks. Are there any parting words that you’d like to leave the audience with?
I’m going off to piggybacking off of your comment about of centralism. The main thing about productivity is don’t do so much. Do less, do simple things. Fewer, more impactful, more important things and tell me about them because I would love to hear about your success.
Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me. This is a total pleasure.
For all of you, do check out what Chris is up to. Also, follow him on Medium. He has got some good articles there that you’ll enjoy. We will see you in the next episode.
- Chris Danilo
About Chris Danilo
- Taught Psych 494 and 294 (hands-on lab experience) at Penn State (Univ. Park)
- Managed a multi-million dollar pediatric neuroscience lab at Penn State (Univ. Park)
- Managed Agile software team building artificial intelligence (multi-objective evolutionary) algorithm for government clients
- Published in child psychology and decision theory literature
- Professionally trained Public Speaker, Actor, and Copywriter.
…and he helps education companies be more productive. He uses Lean, Agile, Empirically-Based Learning, and Industrial models to make it happen.