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Chris Sparks: The Commonalities of Peak Performance

Daniel ScrivnerLast Updated: August 27, 2020

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“If you can improve fast enough in the right areas, then the score will take care of itself.”  Chris Sparks

In the first official episode of Outliers, I sit down with Chris Sparks (@sparksremarks) to discuss why reflection is underrated, why he focuses on holistic performance, and how to spot bottlenecks that hold back progress. 

Chris Sparks is a professional poker player, high performance coach, and the Founder and CEO of The Forcing Function, a high performance consultancy. During his poker career, he was ranked one of the top 20 online poker players in the world. He now focuses on coaching others on poker strategy, behavioral science, and game theory. 

Topics Discussed

  • 00:00:39 – Background on Chris and his company The Forcing Function 
  • 00:05:29 – The systems thinking approach
  • 00:08:05 – Feedback loops and setting aside time for reflection 
  • 00:13:39 – Questions to ask during weekly and monthly reflection time, and how to use those for productivity and progress
  • 00:27:15 – Turning away from the idea of binary outcomes such as success and failure
  • 00:32:38 –  The importance of planning and course-correcting  in productivity
  • 00:44:19 – Simple tools and techniques for productivity

For more, explore the full transcript of this episode. Transcripts for all episodes can be found here.

Links from the Episode

Key Insight

Though there are myriad productivity tools, hacks, and books, none of these techniques will be successful unless we decide to change ourselves. That requires purposeful reflection, asking difficult questions, and knowing where we need help. If we can find our bottlenecks, remove them, and improve quickly enough the score will take care of itself in time.

Actionable Ideas

  • “I honestly think no one actually can do more than four hours of good work a day, and the rest of the day is, ‘What should I be spending those four hours on?’ and clean-up maintenance and systems improvements. There are a lot of people out there trying to work 12 hours a day at a fairly low level and on fairly low-leverage things that aren’t actually moving the ball forward.”
  • “Any time I work with a client I have them list out all the things they’re currently doing, and I just put a line through half of them. It’s like, ‘These are the things that you were no longer going to be doing.’ It’s like the ‘more wood behind fewer arrows’ approach.”
  • “I ask upfront: ‘Think back to the time you were most productive in your life. What did that feel like? List out five things you were doing then that you’re not doing now. … That’s the low-hanging fruit; that’s the place to start. You already know what was working well for you—start there. You don’t need to find a solution outside of yourself, like reading another self help book or scanning Twitter. Those are things working for other people. … Knowing thyself starts with knowing what works well for yourself.”
  • “So much of procrastination is a failure to get started. It’s looking at this blank page. How do you write an essay? … I’d like to talk about it as a verb change: What’s the smallest possible step of going from, ‘I’m going to do this thing’ to ‘I’m doing this thing.’ A lot of that is just lowering the bar for how far I need to go before I can take a break, before I can celebrate. For me, I default to operating in 25-minute cycles… A lot of times I will set a timer for five minutes and say, ‘For the next five minutes, I’m only going to do this thing.’ … It’s minimizing the time to allocate to something and creating that constraint.”
  • “One interesting correlation I’ve found with the executives I work with and their productivity is the first time they check their email is the strongest negative correlation with how much they get done in the day. The earlier they check the email, the less they get done. It will blow someone away to discover the world will not catch on fire if you don’t check your email for a couple of hours. But if you spend a little bit of time on your most important thing of the day before you flip over to the world, you’ll just feel so much more sane, and the most important projects to move forward.”
  • “‘What if I could only accomplish one thing today and have the day be great, what would that thing be?’ And you spend, say, the first 60 to 90 minutes of your day working on that thing, then you could treat the whole rest of the day as a bonus.”

On Outliers, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they’ve mastered and what they’ve learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. 

Explore all episodes of Outliers, be the first to hear about new episodes, and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.