How do we make time for original insights that set our creative work apart? How do we reframe productivity so it serves our career for the long term? David Kadavy talks about mind management, not time management in this interview.
In the intro, Jane Friedman reports on how the pandemic is affecting book publishing, lessons from Netflix vs the World documentary, news of Joe Biden’s antitrust nominee, Lina Khan, a law professor who has argued that companies like Amazon should be broken up or treated as public utilities (NY Times), Musicians call for the UK government to reform streaming royalties (BBC); and should streaming payments be changed from the shared pool model? (Pitchfork)
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David Kadavy is a creative entrepreneur, nonfiction author, and podcaster. His latest book is Mind Management, Not Time Management.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- How creativity is different to productivity
- Time spent thinking vs writing words
- Unstructured time and its positive effect on creativity and insight
- Multiple streams of income
You can find David Kadavy at kdv.co and on Twitter @kadavy
Transcript of Interview with David Kadavy
Joanna: David Kadavy is a creative entrepreneur, nonfiction author, and podcaster. His latest book is Mind Management, Not Time Management. Welcome back to the show, David.
David: Joanna, thank you so much for having me back. It’s good to be here.
Joanna: You were last on this show in 2018, so we won’t get into your history. People can go listen to that. But let’s get straight into the book because this is so important.
I was reading it and it was fascinating to hear about you reaching the end of your tether with productivity hacks and getting things done and all those things. Tell us about that. How did you get to that? Because we’re all self-help people here, and that’s part of our life usually.
What happened that made you get to the end of your tether with ‘productivity’?
David: I was a Getting Things Done early adopter, I guess. Maybe 2003 or 2004 I was in a cubicle in Nebraska, trying to figure out how to handle my first job, and I was using GTD and it was helping me a lot. And that was fine as a designer which I was pretty well trained at and decent at.
But really, I reached the end of my tether I guess when I got my first book deal which was in 2010 and I was writing my first book, Design for Hackers and I had no experience really as a writer other than writing on my blog a little bit.
I’m not somebody who enjoyed writing growing up. It wasn’t in my DNA. But I signed this contract, and I needed to write this book within six months.
I quickly found that GTD wasn’t really doing it for me because the thing about getting things done is it helps you get things done if you know what you’re doing but when it comes to creative work, you don’t always know what it is that you’re trying to get done.
Creative work can be random. These insights come to you, and you don’t know exactly when they’re going to come.
For me, it was 12 hours a day of banging my head against the wall and I would suddenly have these 15-minute bursts of flow where suddenly I could write this entire chapter and it would just come out perfectly.
I said to myself, ‘Well, why can’t I just sit down and do that 15 minutes or writing and get on with the rest of my day? Why do I have to sit and agonize and wait for that moment to come?’ And that’s when I started trying to find some patterns and ways of working that would make those creative bursts happen on command when I wanted them to.
Joanna: ‘On command.’ Everyone’s like, ‘Yes. We want that.’ I would like to do that.
It’s funny because as you’re talking now, I’m just writing some notes. We’re recording this in March 2021. I’m feeling pretty burned out by the pandemic, and I think probably everyone is. We’re a year in. And it feels as if on the one hand, it’s never going to end and on the other hand, that it might end soon.
And it’s funny because what you’re talking about here is exactly how I’m feeling at the moment is that I can’t get to that 15 minutes. I’m getting a lot done, but it’s not what you would call creative work in that way. It’s necessary work because you know, listeners know there’s more to being an author, a professional author than just the writing.
Joanna: Far more. You’re talking about that 15 minutes where you actually manage to create something, but the difficulty is getting to that. Let’s talk through the steps of how do you get to that point.
Where do we even start?
David: I think I would start with the building blocks of creativity are what creativity scientists call insights. And there are scientists like John Kounios and Mark Beeman who have observed the moment of insight in the brain.
They have found that it is a neurologically distinct phenomenon, that when somebody has an aha moment, when they’re solving a creative problem, that looks different in the brain from solving a procedural problem. When you are having creative insights, you’re connecting these disparate elements from different regions of the brain.
They’re all suddenly talking to each other just for a moment. It’s like your brain is a racquetball court with these blue bouncy balls bouncing all over them and every once in a while, some of them collide and then you have an insight and that’s a good idea.
Now contrast that from your typical procedural work, stuff that you already know how to do where there’re steps that you can follow, that’s different. Insights are like solving a maze where you have to go down all these different dead ends before you can find the solution.
Procedural work is a little bit like a jogging path. It’s one step after another. And this is why my book is called Mind Management, Not Time Management because our understanding of productivity is based on this idea that time is this commodity, this thing that you can line up like blocks of frozen orange juice concentrate and one unit of time is the same as the next.
Intuitively, we know that that’s not true but when we actually try to get things done, we do try to manage our time.
Creative work, these insights, you can’t just put in a unit of time and get one of those insights out.
It’s not a direct one-to-one relationship. And time management is left over from the industrial age. It’s leftover from Frederick Taylor.
He the inventor of time management, I would say. Just sitting where with a stopwatch next to some guy who’s stacking bricks and deciding exactly what movements need to happen in what order and how long each of those movements should take to follow the steps to complete this task. Creative work doesn’t happen that way.
First, we would start with that one building block of the insight and having those moments, those aha moments. We need to create space for those.
Joanna: I have conflicting feelings on this because first of all, I completely get what you’re talking about in that sometimes it doesn’t matter how many hours you work on something. You just can’t figure out what that character should be like or how that plot point should work.
Sometimes I know I’m just looking for a story and it doesn’t come, it doesn’t come and I have a thing on my wall that says, ‘Trust emergence’ which I heard on I think Jonathan Fields podcast years ago. And it’s that feeling that eventually, an insight will come and I can’t necessarily rush it. I just have to trust the idea that it will happen.
But on the other hand, we’re professional writers. Many people listening are the sort who think, ‘Okay. I need to sit down and write 500 words, 1,000 words, 2,000 words because I’m a professional writer.’ And that is more like you’re saying, the stacking bricks approach.
How can we balance making time for those moments of creative insight with actually getting the words on the page?
David: I go both ways myself. Sometimes I think of myself as a bricklayer. Just sit down and pump out words and trust that there’s going to be some good stuff in there. And then other times I want to have maximum reverie where I just want to lay back in my hammock and stare at the clouds a bit and just make myself bored until some great insight comes to me.
I think both of those things are useful. For me, it’s more about what’s my skill level with the problem that I’m trying to attack and how big of an insight am I looking for? If I’m looking for a new idea for a book and I write nonfiction books, I spend years on them sometimes.
This book, I came up with the idea eight years ago, or I guess it started 10 years ago when I was writing the first book and then that became this book something like 10 years ago or 8 years ago. If I’m looking for an idea like that, that’s like a big C, Creativity. And that’s where I feel like I need more space.
So depending upon the skill level that I have with this problem and the size of the insight that I’m looking for, that’s how I manage the amount of space that I feel like I need to make a creative insight happen. In fact, the idea for this book, Mind Management, Not Time Management, came to me during a thing that I like to do once in a while called the week of wants.
I’ll do it usually between big projects. I was just done launching my first book and I take a week and I just clear as much as I can from my schedule, which is hard to do, but clear as much as I can. And just try to spend that entire week just asking myself what am I curious about, what do I want to explore. And during that week, I wrote this blog post, ‘Mind Management, Not Time Management.’
From that blog post, a couple of years later, a behavioral scientist named Dan Ariely reached out to me, wanted to know if I wanted to collaborate on a productivity app based upon this mind management idea. We collaborated on that. Google ended up buying that app.
And then I’ve also written a book now from that eight years later. That is from clearing that week out there. Bill Gates was famous for taking think weeks. He would take all these documents to a cabin and just sit and read and that’s where he ended up writing this memo, the internet tidal wave which really poised Microsoft to have a good lead on their competitors in terms of taking advantage of the internet.
So it depends upon the size of the idea that you’re looking for, the amount of space that you need to allow for that to emerge.
Joanna: I love that you call it a week of want there, and I agree on Bill Gates and his reading week. And it’s funny because you call it making room for unplanned time in the book, but actually, you have to plan the unplanned time. As you say, you have to clear your schedule.
You also almost have to decide what you are going to do in that time. For example, are you going to, like Bill Gates does, take 10 books to a cabin and think about those books? And you still have to choose those books. Or as you said there, you mentioned your hammock.
I love a hammock. We used to have a hammock in Australia. I definitely relax in a hammock. Although I’m generally asleep in a hammock, to be fair. But it’s funny because I feel like for me, I think now it’s more long-distance walking. I feel like I’m ‘doing something’ because I’m moving and I’m healthy and yet, I can’t actually work on a computer.
I think a lot and I dictate a lot and then I’ll write in the evenings. I’ll write up my notes and think about my notes in the evenings. And that to me is a way of planning unplanned time in a way that keeps you occupied.
What are your tips for people? I think most people listening and many people who have a family, have kids, I mean, they might still be homeschooling.
How do you weigh up the pros and cons, and how do you arrange time off to think? Is even just a day good enough?
David: A day is better than nothing. Google was famous for having this 20% time that their engineers would use. 20% of their time they could spend on whatever they wanted to work on regardless of what their manager wanted them to work on and this is a common thing a lot of people do.
They’ll have one day a week where they work on things that are a little bit higher level. A week is great. You can go even further. You can have it as sabbatical. People take months off for first things sometimes.
The more time that you can get, the more that that allows you to go down different disparate paths that in my experience, it seems like you’re going nowhere but when you actually trust yourself to go down those paths, eventually they converge and that’s where you find yourself in these places where you actually have something really unique.
I don’t know if it’s necessarily the career strategy to have, but sometimes as authors, we’re writing randomness. I mean, we are writing randomness. No matter how good we are at what we do, there’s going to be some luck involved in whether or not we come up with something good and it’s a stratospheric success.
Some of us hedge and try to write for market and try to make sure that we’re going to make this certain number of sales and expect the graphs to go up and to the right. But really ultimately, I think it’s good to leave something there for you to have these small bets that are wild ideas that are probably not going to become anything but that at least have a chance of being a stratospheric success.
It seems like the more that you don’t take risks, the more that you are looking for that graph going up and to the right, the less you have the opportunity for those crazy breakthrough successes to happen.
I actually have less and less time to do a whole week like that because I already have things that are successful, that are low hanging fruit, that I know I can spend time on and get somewhere with.
But I think if you’re looking for that, for an idea that will define you as an author, I think the more space you can come up with, the better.
It doesn’t even necessarily happen during the time that you have off. I’ve certainly noticed in the rare occasions that I’ve taken a week vacation or even if I go for a hike or if I go get a massage, it’s not during the vacation. It’s not during the hike. It’s not during the massage.
Yes, I have ideas during those times, but oftentimes it just happens to be after that. This is an interesting thing about time.
We think of time as money until it comes to unused time. We feel like oh, we need to kill time. If we’re just laying back on our hammock, we feel like we’re wasting it.
And we think that money’s different because if we save money, we can keep a nest egg and it will grow interest. But I actually think of time in a similar way, that if I save time and I leave it open, that some time in the future that will pay off in the form of a better idea.
There’s a study out of Harvard University where they looked at some knowledge workers and whether or not they had what was called time pressure. That’s what the scientists called it. We could just call it being busy. You feel like you don’t have time to do the things that you need to do.
They found that those who were under time pressure did a lot less of the activities that lead to insights, things like brainstorming or sketching up ideas where there’s a less clear objective to those things. And their work ended up being rated less creative by their peers.
They didn’t find this just on the days that these employees felt time pressure. They found it the next day and even the day after that. And in fact, throughout the course of the project. That time pressure, that feeling of stress appears to have effects that last for a while.
When I talked to neuroscientist John Kounios on my podcast about the neuroscience of creativity, he was saying that it’s very easy to get out of an insightful mind state, but it’s very hard to get into it. And that’s why I like something like a week or as much as I can keep myself from getting stressed out which is difficult to do these days. That’s why I take a longer amount of time is because it allows you to get into that area that you would never get into otherwise.
When I do something like that where I have a long block of time where I’m being more exploratory, I’m very careful to not do something that’s going to stress me out if I can help it because you can very quickly change that mental state and get pulled out of this mental state that it took you a really long time to get into.
Joanna: It’s interesting talking about the ‘value of time.’ I took a longer walking trip on my pilgrimage to Canterbury and I had eight days and by the end of it, I was disappointed because I hadn’t had some massive insight.
But a few weeks later, I ended up going into almost a flow state and I wrote two books in about four weeks (Your Author Business Plan, and Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and Virtual Worlds) and launched them and I had some of the most insightful thinking I’ve had in a long time.
David: Exactly. Did you connect the two?
Joanna: I did afterwards, and I talked about this on my Books and Travel Podcast in my Thoughts from the Pilgrim’s Way. And I couldn’t realize it until a month later, two months later when I was like, ‘Oh, it was by taking so much time out that I enabled my brain almost the resting time or the time in the subconscious area of my brain to get on with these other things.’
It’s so hard to appreciate that value when you would think, ‘Oh, well, that’s eight days. I could write 8,000 words or 50,000 words in that time, but am I wasting time and what if I don’t have an insight?’ And so I understand people if they’re doubtful that these things were important.
I want to come back on something you said. You talked about writing a book that might define you as an author and the idea of success. And you talked about the graph going up and to the right, which is a book sales or a money definition of success.
I also wonder if this pandemic has given people a wakeup call about how life is short and you need to write the books that might define you as an author, might define your life. So I wondered about you. What have you found has changed in thinking about these things during this time?
Have you come to any reconsiderations about your career or what you consider success?
David: I haven’t felt a big change during the pandemic. I don’t want to spoil what’s in the book, but right before the pandemic; I had a couple of the worst experiences that were for me way worse than the pandemic has been so far.
So I had already done some evaluation in that way. But I do always try to have some amount of my resources that I invest in those sort of crazy, what they call, asymmetric ideas. It doesn’t take you a lot maybe to try these crazy ideas. And the potential downside is relatively low, but the potential upside is really high.
This is one of the things that I have struggled with. This idea of the graph going up and to the right is this idea of there being a steady income that comes in and that each day you’re making a little bit of progress on the previous day. The problem with that is that’s not really how creative work or creative success works.
I’m personally very influenced by the writing of Nicholas Nassim Taleb, who writes a lot about randomness. And he talks about these two worlds of Mediocristan and Extremistan. Mediocristan is this world where things are predictable and stable. And Extremistan is this world where things are unpredictable and unstable.
As creatives, I really think that we work in Extremistan. People will try to do the thing where they write the series, they write to market and they have the plan of how they’re going to write 20 books and get to 50K and that that will make the graph go up and to the right in some reliable way.
I totally understand the motivation behind that and that’s something that I try to have some amount that I do because that’s a way to bring stability to finding your way to success as an author and finding your way to these ideas that are going to differentiate you.
Because let’s face it. Writing to market, writing for KU is ultimately not super secure because we’ve got AI coming. They’re probably going to be able to write books like that. I think it was Neil Gaiman that said, ‘There’s the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you.’ But you need to find what that is. And so you need the space to do that.
So, inspired by the writing of Nassim Taleb, I try to think of what’s called a barbell strategy. I hope this doesn’t get too esoteric, but this is the way that I think. The barbell strategy, at least in an investing standpoint, is that you would take 85% of your resources and you would put them in investments that are not going to lose money.
That’s harder and harder to do with potential inflation. I’m not a financial adviser but things like gold and bonds and like things that aren’t going to go down in value. And then the other 15% is these wild card things that have unlimited potential upside.
You might’ve bought cryptocurrency or you might do some angel investments or little things that you could lose that 15% of your portfolio but that’s all that you would lose. And if you made 15 bets out of that 15%, one of them might be explosive and go up 1,000X.
I try to think of my creative career the same way where I’m trying to create some kind of stability. In part because having that stability helps you relax and relaxation is what brings about insights. And then I try to spend the rest of my resources on here’s something that only I can do or here’s some idea that could be big. Probably won’t, could be big.
It’s not an up and to the right graph. I think of it more like a poorly shaped porcupine that every once in a while, there’s just this explosive spike and you just make these small bets. So for myself, I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of blog posts since 2004 on my blog.
I’ve only had two like big ones, what Nassim Taleb would call black swans. They’re these events that happen that you can reverse rationalize them, but you don’t really know why the success happened, and it was a zero to one thing. It was explosive success.
For me that was I wrote a blog post. I got my first book deal. And I wrote my first book, Design for Hackers. The other one was when I wrote Mind Management, Not Time Management, the blog post that came during that week of one and happened to happen during, I think. And that resulted in working on an app that sold to Google, and then also this book that I recently released Mind Management, Not Time Management.
So that’s the way I try to think of things is like as best as I can, try to create some bit of stability and then with the rest, play and tinker and take risks, or at least risks that don’t have a lot of downside but that have a lot of potential upside. And let randomness take over.
Joanna: I would say I have never had any of those events happen. I’ve never had a spike like that. So I would also encourage the audience. You don’t have to have a spike like that. You can just as I have done since 2006 when I started writing…it hasn’t always gone up and to the right.
If you focus on producing your best creative work, then over time, you can make some kind of stability in terms of an income.
I’ve certainly had a stable income for the last decade since I left my job. But as you say, it’s certainly not that every time you launch a book, it goes up and to the right again. So it is interesting.
David: It depends what you think is fun too.
Joanna: Exactly. I think that’s important.
David: As long as you’re having fun. I just can’t have fun unless I’m having those sort of things I put out there every once in a while, that like Seth Godin would say, where I’m thinking to myself, ‘This might not work.’
Joanna: Absolutely. I do want to come to your experiments in self-publishing because you have a mini-book on your site, Failing to Succeed, which I think is also on Amazon as well, and you’ve tried lots of different things.
As you said, you’ve tried different ideas along the way. And you’ve also shared a bit about your author income and what’s worked and what’s not worked.
Are there a few key things that you’ve learned about best practices being an author, whether indie or traditional or hybrid?
David: I do have that income report and I release an income report, a 5,000 word, extremely detailed income report on my blog every month and it’s an exercise in which I really discover a lot of things myself in the process of writing and reporting my thought process bit by bit and dissecting that.
As far as like best practices, I said a second ago that the KU thing that people write for KU and put their books in KU, that’s something that I’ve tried to avoid. I’ve tried to be wide, even though it makes no financial sense in the beginning.
In part, not just because like I want to fight the good fight and give people a different choice besides just Amazon, but also because I think that with KU, Amazon’s trying to turn you into a commodity and if you play into that game, that’s naturally going to cause you to optimize your work in a way that makes it easy to turn into a commodity.
That takes you away from being able to create something that only you can create. I think that that generally pushes you in that direction. Again, I understand the motivation, especially if this isn’t your full-time job. It’s a great use of your resources to just do KU, don’t even think about it and just get out of the cubicle first.
But I think trying a lot of different channels and being patient with that investment is something that I encourage people to do if they have the resources to do that.
I’ve been down the rabbit hole with Amazon ads. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m spending like $6,000 in a month on Amazon ads to make a $1,000 profit. So, you know, $7,000.
And I’m to the point where now I just basically do the auto campaign and I mess with the daily bid and like that’s my 80-20 for that is just play with the bid, do an auto campaign. Amazon’s got good algorithms for that sort of stuff. Otherwise, you can go down a very circuitous rabbit hole.
I also think lock screen ads are really underrated. I see a lot of authors try lock screen ads one time and then they’re just like, ‘Well, that didn’t work.’ Because what they’re doing is, they’re looking at the reporting in the dashboard for the lock screen ads.
The little secret, that reporting is wrong. It will tell you that you made no sales on this lock screen ad that you got 100 clicks for, but weirdly, in your KDP dashboard, the sales have gone up as the impressions and clicks have gone up on this ad. How did that happen?
I’ve looked at this a little bit closer and I have to conclude that that reporting is wrong. So I run lock screen ads quite a bit which I probably shouldn’t even tell the secret because now my bids are going to have to be higher. But there’s the ‘Mastering Amazon Ads’ Kindle book that I found that helpful in the beginning but I’ve also gone down the rabbit hole myself there with Amazon ads.
I think also diversifying the income. If you can find any sort of affiliate programs that relate to your audience. I know it’s difficult with fiction, I think but that’s a thing that I tried to do to find that stability, that padding is I make a passive recurring revenue from referring people to Active Campaign which is the email marketing platform that I use. And that’s a nice diversification.
It’s nice to know that there’s at least one other income source besides Amazon that’s substantial and mixing it up that way. So I think just trying to not be dependent entirely upon Amazon is one good way to go.
Joanna: Oh, for sure. And of course, I always talk about multiple streams of income on this show.
Joanna: You’ve mentioned not being in KU and not focusing on Amazon, but you really gave two tips on Amazon ads and Amazon marketing.
Can you give us any marketing tips on the wide platforms or selling books outside of Amazon? What are you doing for that?
David: I’m not really great at it, honestly. Just like 90% of my income is still with Amazon. Now I have started selling direct using Payhip and BookFunnel.
One experiment that I did, and you can find my entire breakdown of this over on writingcooperative.com, was for this book, Mind Management, Not Time Management I did what’s called a preview edition. And what that was, was I set up a schedule and told my list…you gotta have the email list. That’s an important thing. That they could buy this preview edition.
I released one chapter every few weeks of the draft and I delivered it to them via Bookfunnel and they paid through Payhip for this preview edition. I charged $20 for the preview edition which was this early access to the draft. And people got to read this information months before anybody else.
This is maybe better for nonfiction. I think you can still do it with fiction too. And then there was also a Facebook group where people could discuss the content. And then I also shared the Google Doc of the draft and allowed those people to read the draft and provide their feedback and comments.
I made $4,000 before I even released my book through this preview edition. And that was through using Payhip and BookFunnel. And also, I created the eBooks in Vellum. I created the final eBook myself in Sigil. But just to quickly create individual chapters as eBooks and deliver them as I was writing them, I used Payhip and BookFunnel and Vellum.
Joanna: It’s great to hear that and I think that’s the other thing that’s circling back to what we’re talking about. I sometimes get a lot of ideas for marketing or extra products or extra ways of using the intellectual property asset while I’m doing that unplanned time, or you might be listening to a podcast like this and get an idea and that might help you later on.
Often it’s coming up with new things like you’re talking about there. I think direct sales is so brilliant. If you make four grand like that, that’s pretty much paid for the book. A lot of people, if they get a traditional publishing deal, might only get five grand for the life of copyright. So that’s actually a really big deal.
David: I didn’t hire an editor. My readers edited the book. Now I happened to have a few readers who are actual editors who were excited enough to read my content that they edited the book and provided good feedback. And you get some feedback that is not useful too, and you have to comb through that.
But having that feedback from the readers was just great to have that support early on and to be able to focus on what I wanted to focus on which was writing the book. And that’s the ask that I make to the readers in that sort of situation is like, ‘Hey, I’m almost done with this book. I really want to focus on it. You are a supporter and you can read this content months before anybody else. It’s going to be in draft form but I would love to have your help.’
The problem that there is with something like say Kickstarter is that, one, you’re bringing your own audience anyway. You’re not going to have your book go viral…well, yeah, you could have your book go viral on Kickstarter but then you’d have a bunch of people who weren’t already superfans and they’re going to want a deal. They’re going to want to pay less than you’re actually releasing the book for.
Looking at the margins in publishing, you can’t really do that. So with me, my book is selling right now for $14.99 on Kindle and I think I launched it $9.99. I waited until it was on grade on Kindle and then I made it $14.99 but these people paid $20 upfront but they were getting it months in advance.
They had interaction with me in the Facebook group. And they were fine with it that they were paying more than it was actually launched for. You let your superfans support you.
Joanna: Right. Well, we are out of time.
Where can people find you and your books and everything you do online?
David: Sure. Thank you so much for having me again, Joanna. This has been fun. If you just go to kdv.co, really easy for you to type on your smartphone, you’ll find my website there.
You can find my weekly newsletter, ‘Love Mondays,’ and you can find all my books everywhere. Amazon, Google Play, all over the place. And you’ll also find them over there at kdv.co.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, David. That was great.
David: Thank you.
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