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Interview with Kate Matsudaira about Productivity and Work

Kate Matsudaira is a startup founder and technology executive with a passion for productivity. She has extensive experience building and managing high performance teams and has held leadership positions in companies such as Decide (acquired by eBay), Moz and Amazon.com. In 2013, Kate started her own company Popforms with the mission of helping employees excel at work through innovative courseware. Popforns was acquired by O’Reilly Media in June 2014. In November 2014, Kate launched the Spark Notebook on Kickstarter after a decade-long journey trying to find “the perfect notebook.” Her goal was to raise $14,000, and she exceeded this by almost 10X raising almost a half-million dollars. Kate can be found musing about productivity, tech, leadership and life at: katemats.com.


1) Throughout your online authoring on goal setting, you discuss the importance of being mindful of your motive. I like that you move beyond the common Simon Sinek clichés of “start with why” and rather focus on the reality that people are going to be moved to action differently by different motivation. What are the best ways of overcoming being “lazy”?

Have you heard the word akrasia? The term means lacking command over one’s self. When someone acts against their better judgment, they kind of simply have this akrasia.  You know you should be doing something, but you don’t do it. I think most people’s lack of progress comes from this concept. Most people know what they should be doing at some level.

I believe there are two main ways people get stuck. The first way is, you know what you should be doing but you’re not sure how to make progress. For example, you know you really want to be a writer but you don’t know how to get a writing job. You have the skills of a writer, but you do not know how you actually make a living writing — or how to take those steps towards your goal. The challenge here is figuring out how to get started.

The second way people get stuck is, you have the knowledge to move yourself forward… you have the capacity to build a plan… but you cannot establish momentum. Using the writing example, you know that you need to create sample work. You need a few paid opportunities through freelance work so you can build a portfolio. You need to build the needed momentum to reach your goal. So, in this scenario the challenge is not putting a plan into place, but rather actually executing on a plan. This category of being stuck is where my notebook really helps, by turning bigger goals into actionable steps.

To overcome being lazy you need a plan. You need action. I think this is one of the bigger lessons for me in my life. When I first started my career, one of the things I would struggle with was that my boss would give me these huge projects. So, I would always ask, “Where do I start?” The goals were so big, and I was so new at what I was doing, I didn’t even know where to begin. I think that’s something that happens with a lot of people. You have these really big goals and you’re so far from the finish line it becomes tough to continue. One of the biggest lessons I learned during that time was to start with small steps.

2) Last year you became a mother. My wife and I just added our second addition to the family. How has parenthood changed the way you approach being productive (now that time is not exclusively your own)?

One obvious change in approach is prioritization. By necessity, I have now learned to say no to a lot more stuff too. When I got pregnant, I became really sick. I had a tough pregnancy. There was simply a lot I could not do during that time. So, at that point in my life, I started taking things off my plate because I physically was not capable of working the way I had in the past. The experience was a good primer for the way I operate now; I was forced to be economical with my time and I became very disciplined.

I have also learned you have got to focus on the task at hand. I talk a lot online about being present. Whether I am on a call, playing with my child or I’m writing an article, that is all I’m doing when I am performing that task. Always quality over quantity (with respect to completing tasks). When I am with my son, I’m not checking my phone. I leave my phone in the kitchen so I am not tempted. I am mindful of maximizing the output from any time spent, whatever the desired outcome might look like of the activity I’m immersed in — if I believe I won’t get positive ROI from time spent on something… I simply don’t do it.

I am up at 5:30 a.m. with my child now. So, time is the thing I don’t have. I have become really disciplined. When I have 15 minutes free, I don’t waste it on things like Facebook, I’m not screwing around with my extra minutes. I’m using all time really effectively nowadays. I have a predetermined plan for those 15 minutes that advantageously pop up. One of the real secrets to time management is knowing what to do with the spare 15 minutes life gives you.

3) Working with Michael Gervais, as well as buying into some of the arguments made by Gary Keller in the book The One Thing, I believe “balance” is a fallacy for high achievers. In my opinion, high achievers find more time than others because there is always more that can be done. You highlight this in your post about making the most of small slices. That said, prevailing science suggests that making time for renewal, and turning down, allows us to be more productive. How does the concept of renewal fit into your productivity paradigm?

You have to schedule it unfortunately. For me, exercise is a release so I try to schedule time to work out regularly. Fortunately, I consider time with my child downtime. I carve out time to spend time with my child and that’s not mentally taxing for me. For me, the time with my family is renewal and I have been really deliberate with how I spend my days. I also make it a point to take vacations every year.

In my car, I listen to good audiobooks, things that make you a better person. I have a pretty long commute, 45 minutes each way, so that’s a good amount of time that I can just kind of unwind if I want. So, I think it just depends on what you need (personally) to unwind. But, for me, I get enough renewal in my life. I’ve built my life around these things because I understand they’re important.  

4) You have an amazing amount of personal systems: for staying on task, organizing yourself and managing incoming information. Personally I feel overwhelmed by the information I have amassed and at times can find it limiting. For example, each year Evernote becomes less useful for me because it contains so much content now. Considering your interests, your proclivity for knowledge and writing, as well as being a continual innovator, what are your strategies to isolate what is important and/or simplify when you need to?

I have this thing I call my Monday Ninja Planning Session and I do it religiously every Sunday night or Monday morning. I start my week with it. I have time on my calendar for it that’s always either 30 or 60 minutes. The sessions are about going over what are the most important priorities and/or things I need to do that week. By engaging in this activity, it really makes sure that I’m not just working on time sucks (e.g. tactical messages in my inbox) or whatever superfluously comes my way. It also means that — by design — I am checking back into my goals every week. I ask myself, “How are my yearly goals going? What is going on with my monthly goals? How does this all fit together?” I make sure that I am actually moving forward with what is important. This method makes you critically look at your productivity and refocuses you to make sure that you’re working on things that matter. Establish this ritual at the beginning of the week, and you find yourself managing your time more effectively.

Also, if you work for someone else, send a status email every week outlining what you are going to do for the week. Make sure what you are working on is mapped with you and your manager’s goals. When I was an employee, this process created an ongoing conversation with my manager and allowed me to track and share my progress in a very tangible and meaningful way.

These are not really ways of simplifying your work I suppose, but rather ways of focusing on what is important which is keystone to being productive.

5) You have now created a movement of people who are going to use your product to aid them in making 2016 their best year yet. What are your plans and goals for evolving the Spark Project and the Spark community in 2016?

That is a really good question and I wish I had a really good answer for you. I am still consistently surprised by the success of the various Spark projects. Frankly, it is awesome. However, when you have a lot of unplanned success — which has led to not being able to fulfill all the orders in time for the new year — I am just trying to do my best just to make sure everyone is happy.

What the future holds is evolving. I am hoping to expand into some complementary products. We already have launched the meeting notes notepad. I also look forward to building other tools to help people be successful, so stay tuned for that. That’s it in terms of physical products for now. In terms of the Spark community, I am hoping to continue delivering strategies and free worksheets that help people achieve their goals (by way of the Spark email newsletter). We will likely use Kickstarter again next year for the 2017 planner because that platform has really worked well for us so far for launching these projects.

 

Comments

Luke aguilar

A very simple but often neglected step is establishing a time period of when to revisited the initial goal(s) and then following through. For me, the simple act of reviewing my goals at an established time frame: maybe 2 weeks, 2 months or even 2 years … this helps me modify along the way; ultimately to reach my intended outcome.