68: Getting Productive with an Unproductive Boss

Good episode - I have a very off-hands boss so I can get as much deep work as I want. I’ve had problems with other people scheduling meetings on my calendar when they wanted, but I fixed that by making events for myself in my calendar. I do the same with lunch because I hate lunch meetings:


Regarding pomodoro: I think the best benefit of pomodoro is to train your attention muscle. I used to not be able to focus on a single task for an hour but I could for twenty minutes, then twenty five, thirty, etc with a short break in between.

Loving David’s lawyer-specific advice. Love the idea of weaning people off of the dopamine hit they get from interrupting you. I’m in the middle of building a new department at work where I’ve intentionally been very responsive to email and I think I’ll be able to go from that to a more effective system that allows larger blocks of individual focus over time. A law firm is an example of such a system, or at least could be. :wink:

I also like all the feedback in general. For me, this podcast is getting better the more entangled it becomes with past episodes and user feedback.

I liked the discussion of focus vs intentionality. In particular where David said that, “Intentionality is like the rudder of the ship, whereas focus is like trimming the sails.”

It seems like intentionality is about choosing what you want to apply your time, energy, and attention to. Focus is about how you apply that time, energy, and attention to something. Without intentionality it’s easy to be focused on something that’s not really relevant and helpful to what you want to accomplish. Similarly, you can be very intentional about what you want to do, but without focus you won’t be as effective at actually accomplishing it.

So, to return to the nautical theme: Intentionality is like being the navigator of the ship; choosing which direction to go. Focus is like being the helmsman and steering a straight course in the chosen direction.


@mikeschmitz are you willing to share your daily task pdf that you use in GoodNotes?

The tactic of using headphones to signal to people you are busy and focused on another tasks reminds me of the technique I used: I put on my “thinking cap” - an actual company logo’d baseball cap - when I was in my cubicle and working on something which needed total concentration or had a deadline to meet. People soon learned to try to catch me later and even the managing director would only apologetically disturb me if there was a real urgent need for me.

I have never had more than a 10% success rate with this approach. Even with large over-ear headphones.

I’ve pondered wearing ear protection like one would at a shooting range (painted covered in brightly-colored tape), with my AirPods inside.

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The trick is probably to ignore people for a bit, pretending you do not hear them, when wearing the large headphones (of course this does not work as well when it is your boss interrupting you). David also mentioned this in the episode. That does a far better job of conditioning people to not interrupt you than only wearing the headphones.

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My coworker had that issue and had to solve it with the old school approach - literally tell people “hey, when I am wearing these, I am trying to focus”. This supposes you haven’t done that before, and is easier said than done, but sometimes the direct approach works best.

It has been something I’ve only shared with coaching clients up until now, but I’ve had quite a few people ask so I did make a page for it here: mikeschmitz.me/planning

I will also have customizable versions of all my planning sheets + explainer videos in my Faith-Based Productivity course.


I like the ideas presented about how to indicate you are “busy” at work. I would caution that you don’t cross the line of “ignoring” boss or co-workers and get the unwanted label of “difficult to work with”. I like the term “training” in this case where people start to recognize when you are in “GTD” mode and let you be until a later time but do return to ask for your assistance. (I apologize for all the “”)

Here is a thought/topic for the podcast. How to be productive when your job requires that you be interrupted frequently through the day? I had a position, Operations Manager, where my job was to help others be productive, put out fires and maintain excellent operational function for the company. The job was a job of meetings, interruptions and changes of hats many times throughout the day. Many asked how I got any work done when I had so many meeting to attend. You, Mike and David, might have insights on how to perform that function, for a company, that allows you to feel productive at the end of a day. I think I did the job well by taking the bullets of interruptions from upper management so my team could stay focused. Thoughts are appreciated.

Like you, my work requires a high level of interruptibility (I’m a university library administrator) and so a lot of the work that requires focus strategies is the stuff I do when I’m not doing the most important work which is helping people and being available to guide others, answer questions, respond to messes, etc. Even the word interruption is silly in this setting because the mission of the library is getting people connected with the resources they need in a way that works for them.

This is where using a system like the Pomodoro Technique (PT) can really help reframe an interruption–it is just a pause in your current task and the interruption may be more important than the task you’re doing. The pause button is central to the technique. I’ve used PT since 2012 and hitting the pause button on a task, tending to the interruption, and then resuming the task helps tremendously with refocusing and being productive after an interruption. I’ve found 25 minutes to be perfect and the 5 min breaks work well for me, mostly for minitasks and walking around checking in with people. I am actively using the PT timers at work for 4-5 hours a day and also use PT at home to get chores done between sprints of fun stuff. My favorite PT apps are Be Focused Pro and Focus which are on my iPhone, 2 iPads, and apple watch.

I haven’t seen anyone mention the brain benefit of using the PT but I will say I’ve found that doing strings of those 25 min poms and 5 min breaks helps me focus and refocus FASTER. I find that 25 minutes seems like a long time when you actually focus on one thing for 25 minutes. You develop mental agility as well and can switch tasks with ease and deal with interruptions. If I had a boss or coworker who was hyper-interruptive, I think I would mention that I was hitting the pause button on a task and try to shape the exchange as something brief to tend to now, or turn it into a bullet to get to in the near future.

You do need to combine PT with a good task management system so that you don’t have to think too hard about what tasks need to done. I use a hybrid GTD/Bullet Journal method at work that is analog (fountain pens & notebooks) and a nice counterbalance to the timers and vibrations that are coming from my devices for the pomodoros. With longterm use of the PT, I’ve found being a slave to the technology is good.



Or just use the shooting ears that have built in support for music players. :smile:

(Called ears because the SO at the range always says “Going Hot, Eyes and Ears” before a shooter commences firing.)


This was really good episode for those of us who don’t have the ability to control their day like most of the freelance/independent community.

& refreshing to hear empathy for those stuck in inflexible offices aka no telework or butts in seats mindset

I wanted to address the two pieces that were mentioned in terms of people dropping by for updates and sticky notes with tasks. For the second one, as someone who follows productivity you just have to see that as another inbox and incorporate it into your inbox for processing later. You can also start training them to give you a time they need the work completed by so you know when you have to integrate it. Worst case this allows you to go talk to them and ask the question of what is more important. For the people dropping by for updates, one way you could curb this is by proactively sending out updates in the morning so they know they’ve gotten the most recent information. I thought about some sort of status portal but that requires them to learn how to use it. Finally if you really have to get some focus time, arrange with the boss to come in early one day and work with an early release that day or some sort of trade. Or even use some of the Four Hour Workweek strategies to work from home one day a week to get that true deep work done.

I understand the frustration of being interrupted and on other peoples time but I think some of the “lead up” ideas (see Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink) can help. Start using all you’ve learned from productivity to create systems to deal with and minimize the interruptions instead of just being frustrated by them.

Hey this actually is Amanda (hi everyone!) and that’s great advice. I’ve labeled desk tray called “inbox” and beside it is a tiered desk tray with GTD style triaging (just needs put in a file, needs action, reference), so when they come into my office with a post-it or legal sheet of paper I take it from them, put a date on it so I know when I got it, and stick it in there. Them seeing me take the thing from their hand and immediately put it into the inbox (along with a brief "I’m so sorry but my desk space is all one file and I don’t want things to get confused) has started the habit of them putting things into the box.

I’ve also started doing monthly We’re Going Over Every File meetings with my bosses where I just tell them where each case is (which stage of the court process, who we’re “waiting” for, whether that’s me or the client) in hopes of curbing their “aim shoot fire” mentality, because when we review the cases they think of all the random things they want me to do and I can just add them to my task manager at that time instead of through a series of random thoughts that pop into their heads.

I’ve never read that book though, I’ll definitely look into it. Thanks!


Thanks for an awesome episode.

I have been playing with the Pomodoro technique for a while and wanted to mention one problem that it solves for me that wasn’t mentioned in the episode: it helps me avoid getting lost in rabbit holes. As a programmer it’s easily possible to loose yourself in a task if it’s not exactly clear how to solve something, or the task is explorative in nature.

The PT is forcing me to regularly do a check in and ask myself:

  • what is my current task
  • am I still working towards that goal
  • if I went on a side track, is it OK to continue, or is it time to go back try something else

I am also using Vitamin-R which shows you your ‘objective pad’ - a little text editor where you write the goal for the next time slice. Once the slice is done it’ll show you the same content again, so you can verify you’re still doing the right thing.

Vitamin-R also includes backgrounders noises, which I don’t use. But like MacSparky I am using nature sounds albums on Apple Music, which also have the trigger effect like Mike described. I turn on thunderstorm = business time!

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As mentioned I am Amanda, baby lawyer, and I just wanted to post my takeaways from the podcast.

First, thank you guys so much for all the time dedicated to my question and making me feel better about my work situation. It’s been so frustrating because I know I’m “one of the lucky ones” as a young lawyer (passed the bar first try, had a job lined up before bar results came out, making decent-ish money for a first year associate in my area, enjoy my clients and practice area, etc) but I feel like I’m not being allowed to work in the way that works best for me.

So here are my action items based on the episodes:

  1. Exercise as much control in areas as I can. I’ve started this – I’ve convinced our IT department I’m technologically capable, so they’ve let me install programs like TextExpander and RescueTime to make drafting repetitive documents easier and time track more efficiently.
  2. Set expectations for the people who work with me.
  3. Go into meetings with an agenda and determine action items – I try to do this now but I don’t send out agendas in advance. I will start doing that.
  4. Pause for a moment to finish my thought before answering the questions of those who just wander into my office to remove the “dopamine hit of [my] instant submission” :slight_smile:
  5. Show the same respect to the partners I’m asking of them – I do already try to batch up my questions to ask them (mostly because they disappear and pop in and out of meetings so frequently) but I’ll set up a scheduled time to do this as opposed to tracking them down.
  6. Block off time to show what I plan on doing each day. – What’s funny is I do two giant whiteboards in my office that I use to communicate stuff that they refuse to look at my calendar for. If I’m out of the office for any period of time I put a whiteboard on my chair with where I am and when I’ll be back so they can’t put something there and expect it done while I’m gone. Actually blocking off times to work on things is something I haven’t tried yet and will definitely do so.

As brief feedback to Mike bringing up the myth of the 8 hour workday, unfortunately my billable hour requirement is 1800 hours a year, so if I don’t want to work on weekends I have to bill about 7.5ish hours a day, which I’ve honestly found thus far impossible to do. On perfect days where everything goes right, I can bill about 6 hours per 8 hour day. I’m hoping I can improve this number as time goes on.

Anyway, sorry for the second wall of text (the first being my original email) and thank you again for all the feedback! I’ll report back eventually hopefully with good news :grin:


I was lucky once to have a workspace with an outsized whiteboard on the wall, that I marked up with schedules, status of each hot project and task, issues, unknowns – anything relevant to my team’s work horizon over the next 5-7 days.

Then I (gradually) taught my boss – who would appear out of some parallel dimension, ask Captain Obvious-type questions, then disappear again into thin air – to look at the board before going on with “what about … where are we with …”. Helped me focus. Reduced the unproductive chit chat.

Whiteboards are excellent.