Productivity expert Stever Robbins is author of Get-It-Done-Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More—now available from St. Martin’s Press. He is also host of the #1 iTunes business Get-It-Done-Guy podcast(*), which has received more than 7 million downloads on iTunes. He is currently collaborating with Off-Broadway composer and author Joel Derfner, producing, co-writing, and performing a one-man musical based on his book.

Robbins speaks with Write On! about his new book, podcasting, social media, and more.

Why did you write Get it Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More?
Since I graduated from college, Americans work far more—at least as measured in hours worked per week. People who  watched me work would comment that I get a lot done in very little time. I realized that my obsessive desire to optimize every facet of my life wasn’t very common. Since one of my principles is “don’t reinvent the wheel,” I figured I could help a lot of people by sharing what I’d learned. I also thought that writing, itself, would be fun.

What was your process for writing it? Getting it published?
I was fortunate—my Get-it-Done Guy podcast was extremely popular, and the publisher approached me! With a verbal offer in hand, I found an agent to negotiate the details of the contract for me. Although it sounds strange that I hired an agent after I had an offer, she knew all the ins and outs of the process that I didn’t. Her knowledge of what to negotiate for was invaluable.

What was your favorite part of the process? The greatest challenge?
My favorite part of the process was working with my editor Emily. She’s sharp, a good editor, and virtually every suggestion she made improved the book. She became my editor only a couple of months before the final deadline, and her first piece of feedback was, “Rewrite the book from scratch. It doesn’t work as it is.”

Her remarks led to my greatest challenge, which was rewriting the whole thing in six weeks, after working on it for a year and a half prior. The final rewrite was not pleasant, but the book is so much better that I can hardly imagine what would have happened had I gone with my previous draft.

Right now the book has launched, and the marketing is my biggest challenge. I have a low tolerance for ambiguity, and I like to live in a simple, black-and-white world where all outcomes are the result of reproducible, knowable steps. Book marketing isn’t like that. You do everything you can think of, and then some. Then you succeed or you fail. Whether that outcome has anything to do with all that work is unclear. In retrospect, only a few key events seem to matter, but you don’t know which they are beforehand.

What is your favorite step in your book? Why?
Step 1: Living On Purpose is my favorite step. It sets the frame for the whole book. Most people get very good at what they do, without ever asking if what they’re doing will help them reach their goals. Then they quickly get someplace they don’t want to be.

When you’re living on purpose, you know why you’re writing that report, or volunteering for that committee, or spending time with a prospective client. If your goals and your actions get out of alignment, you can fix them. And given that goals change, and that sometimes our actions don’t work as well as we thought, doing that re-evaluation is important.

In the book, I show how to create a “life map” that maps how your biggest goals link to your daily activities. I created my first life map by accident, to explain to a summer intern how her work fit into my business, and what personal goals my business was intended to achieve in my life. It turned out to be one of the most useful exercises I’ve ever done. I now keep my life map up to date and review it regularly.

What is the number one thing that stops people from being productive? What is your solution?
Technology and multitasking. As I discuss in Step 3: Conquer Technology, the answer is divorce. Specifically, divorce your computer. Rearrange your office so the computer is hard to reach without effort. Before you use it, write down exactly what you plan to use it for. Stand up, walk to the computer, do that task, then immediately get up and return to your workspace. If you have another computer task, repeat the process. Do the same with your iPhone, your Blackberry, your Android, your TiVO, your PSP, and every other piece of technology that comes with built-in distractions.

(You’ll notice that my instructions above imply that you won’t be able to just hang out waiting for email or instant messages any more. You’ll have to decide to check email/IMs deliberately, only a few times a day, as distinct tasks. That’s a good thing!)

How did you go about developing a podcast? Any recommendation for would-be podcasters?
I had my own podcast called “Business Explained” for a while but wasn’t getting a lot of traction with it. A friend introduced me to the Grammar Girl podcast. I saw that she had a whole channel, and wrote her a letter proposing that I do a business-oriented podcast for her channel. She had just sold her channel to Macmillan publishing. My email arrived just as they were about to meet to choose their newest podcaster. The format—five minute brief, immediately usable tips—was theirs.

My podcast launched in November 2007. Because of Grammar Girl’s success, iTunes featured my podcast in the “New and Notable” section. Grammar Girl let me guest host her Thanksgiving episode, and within six weeks, I had hit #1 in the iTunes Business category and was up to #10 across all categories in iTunes.

If you’re a would-be podcaster who wants to broadcast to more than family and friends, find a strong existing brand you can piggy-back on. There are hundreds of thousands more podcasters today than when I started, and getting noticed in the crowd is very difficult. I’m lucky to have connected to the Quick and Dirty Tips network as it was on its way up.

Developing your own vocal and writing style is also important. I did comedy improv for several years and I think that contributes to my ability to make a relatively dry subject humorous. Once you’ve recorded a few episodes, listen to them. My early episodes sounded like I was reading from a script (I was and still do).  Once I stopped crying, I vowed to learn to deliver the material better. I’m still learning, but at this point, I’m very comfortable with both my writing and delivery.

How important is social media for writers?
It’s different for different writers. Obviously, Stephanie Meyer used social media to become the next J.K. Rowling. Orson Scott Card also has an online community that help him with his books. For me, social media was a big distraction while writing. I would go online and not get back to writing until much later.

I set up a blog that I used to do research by asking my existing Twitter followers questions and having them post their responses. While I got many fascinating responses on several different topics, the way things unfolded, almost none of that made it into the final draft of the book.

For me, social media has been important post-launch, as I encourage people to buy the book and tweet about it. We don’t know how much social media is driving sales, but I’m certainly getting a fair amount of twitter love.

How do you balance all the elements of your career?
My two driving motivations in life are learning and teaching. I’m a very curious person. I often choose activities and projects where I can learn a lot while being of value to people.

These days, I try to sort out my life so my daily activities are things I enjoy. That way, regardless of whether the produce the best business results, I’m enjoying my daily life. That said, I start from there and then search for ways to move my business forward as much as possible while doing those things I might enjoy.

Balance in the moment is hard for me. I try to do everything at once and end up overloading myself. Balance over time is my goal. I’m still learning to sequence my interests so I get to them all, just not at once.

Advice for non-fiction book writers?
I want to say something deeply motivational like, “Believe in your dream!” or “Don’t give up!” Instead, I’ll say, “Don’t do it.” Now pretend I said that ten times. Now, if you still persist in your dream of wanting to be a writer, read Step 1: Living on Purpose and make sure you know why you want to write your book. If it’s to satisfy a lifelong dream, or if it’s because you love the process of writing so much that you can’t help yourself, then go for it!

If you’re writing the book for business purposes, be very clear about how the book will accomplish those purposes. For making money through your existing audience, a self-published book may be best. For establishing broader credibility and media coverage, publishing through a major publishing house may be best. If you just have a vague notion that “having a book will help my business,” I’d recommend thinking a bit more deeply before committing that kind of time and effort.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I’d known how much work it is. I thought writing an 80,000 word book would be like writing 80 1,000-word essays. I couldn’t have been more wrong. With a book, each chapter has to flow, the chapters must flow together into a larger whole, and the whole thing needs unifying themes. Furthermore, I can write a 1,000-word essays in a 3-hour burst of focused concentration once a week. Sustaining the momentum to write an entire book—for me—involved getting my brain so immersed in the book that even when not writing, it was all I thought about. My entire life become nothing but the book for over a year. I recall saying over and over that I would never do it again, and that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done.

Now that the book is done, however, I’m rose-coloring my memories and fantasizing about what my next book might be.

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  1. […] Tuesdays – Author Q&As: Journalist, Screenwriter, and TV Columnist Phillip Ramati Chris Kennedy, No Bed of Roses Stever Robbins, Get-It-Done-Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More […]

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