The Structure and Magic of Deep Work w/Sebastian Marshall

EP08 - The Structure and Magic of Deep Work w/Sebastian Marshall

Want to learn how to achieve peak performance in the work that you do with a super simple and highly effective method?  

If so then stop reading, and just press play.

This week Matt is speaking with Sebastian Marshall, the CEO of - an organisation dedicated to helping individuals and teams achieve peak performance, and probably best known for developing the Work Cycle framework.

We dive deep on the topic and walk you through step-by-step on how to implement Work Cycles in your daily routine.

Now go get stuff done!

For the custom resources and templates that Sebastian compiled for listeners head on over to

Click here to listen to the show on your platform of choice:

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Voiceover (00:03):

Welcome to Leading Remotely, Helping Remote First Leaders Navigate, Survive, and Thrive in this new world of work. Let's make remote work.

Matt Hayman (00:16):

Hi, and welcome to Leading Remotely. I'm your host, Matt Hayman. Thanks as always for taking the time to listen to the show today. If you are interested in achieving peak performance in the work that you do, this episode is for you. I'm speaking with Sebastian Marshall, the CEO of Ultraworking is an organization dedicated to help individuals and teams achieve peak performance, and they're probably most famous for developing the work cycle's framework. Sebastian and I go into this in detail, walk you through step by step on how to implement work cycles in your daily routine. And I absolutely love this conversation with Sebastian. He was hugely generous and has offered additional resources, which we get into in the episode exclusively for podcast listeners. So let's get straight to it. Let's speak to Sebastian Marshall from

Sebastian Marshall (01:12):

Thank You. I'm doing exceptional. Very excited to be here.

Matt Hayman (01:14):

Fantastic. We always start with a bit of an introduction. I think it's important for the audience to know a little bit more about who you are and what you do before we jump into the main focus of the podcast. So why don't you kick off and just give us a bit of an introduction?

Sebastian Marshall (01:26):

Sure. I'm the CEO of Ultra Working and you know, it came out of really an obsession that I had for very many years of like what leads to peak performance and there's some qualitative things that are very personal and then there's all kinds of quantifiable objective things. So I did some things. I don't advocate for other people. We build much simpler technology than this, but I like track my time down at the five minute block for multiple years in a row, for instance. I'm like, where's this time go? You know, like, like some people get a lot of stuff done and then other people are like, they're trying real hard, but things don't get done. And I'm like, well, I wanna build those people. Gets a lot of stuff done. So I would do stuff like that and kind of learn from data the numbers and review it every week, you know, and got interested in, you know, a bunch of statistics stuff, bunch of operation stuff and you know, I'm not gonna bring the full nerd geek arsenal, but that's the type of stuff that I'm into.

Sebastian Marshall (02:12):

And then we try to make it unlike a lot of people that are into this sort of thing, I recognize not everybody wants that. A lot of people are like, Hey, I'm pretty happy with how things are going, but around the edges, hey, if there's some low hanging fruit where I can get more enjoyment, more productivity, less stress, get stuff done easier. So we build things in a technology like that. We don't go to those super advanced crazy stuff, but that's what I love. And then we simplify that when we bring it into more consumer and business technology. Fantastic.

Matt Hayman (02:37):

I don't know how I first came across the concept of ultra work, you know, work cycles in particular, but it has been genuinely transformational. There's a lot of hyperbole on, on these shows when you get people on, but genuinely I wanted to get you on because it has radically transformed the way that I work day to day. So firstly, a big thank you and also just to tease up what we're gonna get to later in the show. So thank you for that. Do you get feedback? Do you hear that a lot from people around work cycles in particular and the impact that it's had on them?

Sebastian Marshall (03:03):

Yeah, a couple things. Work Cycles Lights is the other one that people like a lot. We built a habit tracker; Lights that some people like a whole lot. Yeah. And work Cycles in particular is, you know, we run you, you can run work cycles solo, right? Or you can run them in a, in a group setting. And we, we have free events from time to time where we do four hours of live work cycles can come work with us and then, you know, we'll do that over at the work gym, which is a, is a paid service that we have. And yeah, I mean very often people are reporting, no, no, no blowing smoke here, bunch of otherwise pretty stoic, you know, researching a biotechnology type. People are like, wow, I was like 400% more productive, you know, on it. And it's possible, you know, 400% as a side note, getting two days of work done and a half a day. Right. Which we've all done from time to time. So the question is how do you get there more often? Work sales isn't the only way, it's not the only thing I do. I work in other mediums and other forms besides that. But yeah, it's, it's a way to sit down and have a really reliably good work session.

Matt Hayman (03:59):

Thanks. We're gonna come to that and we're gonna explore that in detail. I mean, it's, it's beauty as its simplicity in a sense, but we will get to that. Before we do, I wanna just sort of zoom out for a second. And obviously this is the Leading Remotely podcast. The people who are listening are generally leading remote teams or remote first or hybrid teams. I just wanna get your take, cuz I know you've worked remote for a very long time, is that right?

Sebastian Marshall (04:17):

Yeah, so we had a, we had a hybrid base structure where some of our team was remote and we had a home base for a number of years pre pandemic. Then once the pandemic hit, we were, we were full remote, whether by choice or not, you know, after that.

Matt Hayman (04:28):

And similar for me as well, I mean I, I was working remote for 10 years prior to Covid, so it was kind of, for me it was a continuation of the norm. But I do wanna get your take on this specifically. So if we think about the impact of the pandemic on remote work, what do you think has been the impact of working rightly on our ability to undertake deep work more broadly?

Sebastian Marshall (04:46):

Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, there's so many different levels I could answer you on naturally. I mean the first thing that I'll, I'll bring up cuz I think it's, it's a pretty low hanging one for people to think about that's maybe so actionable that it sounds obvious, but people don't think about it is, you know, back when I had a co-working space, it was about five minutes away from where, where I lived and I would walk over there and, you know, I could stop and get smoothie on the way and whatnot. I had a context shift where like I'm at the office and if I was playing counterstrike at the office, I was screwing around. And if I was playing counterstrike at home, it was, I was, maybe I was still screwing around, but it was a defensible, right? And that's gone. You know what I mean?

Sebastian Marshall (05:23):

So it's kind of like, you know, you go to bed at 11 o'clock you know, at your desk, your chair, your couch, whatever you're on leisure time, you wake up in the morning, maybe you have those tabs open. You go sit in the exact same spot that you were wrapping up with leisure and, and looking into the night before. So I don't know that that's the biggest thing that shifted, but I think that's one that's so obvious, but maybe people haven't noticed it is we don't have that context shift. I think the people that have home offices are really, really lucky. They have a big, big house. They go into the office when they're working and they leave the office. They're not working for people without that. Navigating that has been a, a real challenge for the individuals involved.

Matt Hayman (05:57):

Yeah, I see that when I'm in a, in a previous role I was working with people who had office space in the home. I was lucky enough to have that myself. But when you see people working in a bedroom where they're on Zoom calls and they're in a bedroom where they're sleeping, for me it's like that blurring of that context can't be understated. I think how important that is on people's just productivity and mental health as

Sebastian Marshall (06:15):

Well. For sure. And on that note, in terms of bigger factors, right? So I think a lot of the damage from being forced remote, some teams took, didn't take at the start of the pandemic because they already had the relationships established with their colleagues. They know them, they know who to hit up and whatever. But as new people joined, especially I feel bad for some of the younger people that their junior year and senior year of college was on Zoom and then they're going to join the workforce and like everybody's kind, it's like the end of the pandemic and everyone's like, Oh hey, who are you? Okay, yeah, whatever. Welcome. Right? You know, one thing we did that might actually be a, a tactical thing, our, our head of teamwork, Andy Bonks led this up. It was really good. We actually created, we found people weren't socializing as much as would be expected in an office context, right?

Sebastian Marshall (06:56):

Like cuz you know, we used to just like go out for a dinner like, Hey, you wanna play board games on Saturday? People go for a workout, people take a walk together. All that sort of jazz wouldn't happen. And we're also on video calls so much that the people are like, let's spend more time on the video calls. Like not necessarily that appealing. We created a scavenger hunt. So we did an notion, we used oceans kind of like an internal wiki operating system sort of thing for ourselves. Wonderful, wonderful software. You know, we did, we created something called a scavenger hunt, right? Where hey, do a walk and talk with one other team member on the team, right? So walk and talk is where you, you know, hook up on mobiles and you walk while talking as opposed to be sitting. And we had some other ones in there, Hey, play around a video games with somebody, do a workout with somebody, either yoga class or the body weight exercises or some such.

Sebastian Marshall (07:37):

So we've made a scavenger home, we challenge people, Hey go link up other team members that are in time zones, you, you connect with naturally and do some of this stuff on here. And that was great for getting people to be like, cuz like now there's like a structure for it. Instead of just like reaching out to somebody you don't know, like, Hey, do you want to talk about nothing on a video call? I feel like I'm imposing. Instead it's like, Hey, I'm playing online Monopoly, you wanna come play around with me or you wanna to walk and talk with me? Or you wanna share language lessons about how to speak a few words in a language I know or you know, or whatever. That was really, really good. So that little, those structured ways of socializing were very helpful, especially for new team members that weren't acclimated and and socialized with everybody when the thing broke out that they'd never spent time face to face with everybody else.

Matt Hayman (08:15):

Yeah, we, in fact, I had this conversation with another podcast guest yesterday about board games, just games in general, play in general players a way to stimulate those conversations with people that you don't have a great deal of contact with day to day. I think that's, it's absolutely vital. Where do you think face to face meetups play a role in this? Because obviously we've got leaders listening to this maybe looking to have fully remote teams but occasionally catch up. What's your take in terms of the importance of that face to face interaction?

Sebastian Marshall (08:42):

Yeah, and most of the most effective people I know, I don't, I don't know anyone that I think is like super, super, super effective that doesn't link up at least annually. Some people it's only annually and that seems to work pretty well for people and the people that do annually kind of make more of a production about it, whereas other people are more, maybe slightly more frequently, but not making a big deal out of it as much. So I think you have a couple of options. I'm pretty hot in the long term as as hopefully fingers crossed, Covid winds down. I'm, I'm pretty bullish in the long term of remote plus a base or a couple of bases, which is like, here's like a nexus point. So it's like whatever city's really cool, whether that's Berlin or it might be a place that is like a cool place that is a, a, a liberal, you know, visa or visiting policy or, or you know, people coming and hang out there.

Sebastian Marshall (09:24):

Call poor Malaysia. I live for some years is a wonderful place. So having a base in, in one of those places, probably if you have international staff, the United States is a little bit harder to do that on. But if it's all American staff, for instance in an American company, then, then that could be a cool American city that's kind of maybe somewhere that hasn't easy to get in and out airport and then people can pop by and having some, you know, some critical mass of people always there. And then when other people filter and they get to meet some of the team, you know, I found when you have a base set up, even there's only a few people there and other people circle through, people kind of feel like connected to it. Like there's a place that we exist as opposed to, you know, humans.

Sebastian Marshall (09:56):

Like, it's very hard to mentally orient of like we're a distributed virtual graph of an organization like these people kinda like, it's hard to think about, right? Yeah. And, and yeah, for remote can work most people I know they're doing that, they link up once a year. I'm pretty hot on bases where there's like a few core team members in one, one zone and then other people can kind of come visit from time to time. And then I think if you do that then everybody's swinging through the base city once a year. Even if it's not all at exactly the same time, it's probably okay and you probably don't need to have that major retreat. You still could, but I think either of those could kind of scratch that itch.

Matt Hayman (10:28):

Yeah, and we, we, our base is Berlin really, that's where the majority of the team are. And so that is where people go, go in, fly into and we do catch up face to face, ideally once a quarter. And I find that hugely refreshing, just reinvigorating to have that face to face time and then go off and work fully remotely. So I yeah, I'm totally agreeing with you there for sure. Okay, so let's think about then one of the other challenges that comes up when we think about remote and its impact on, on, on leadership in senses is how do you balance the need to keep a very close eye on what people are doing, but also give them the freedom to work on their own terms and and not become this maniacal micromanager. How do you think about, you know, with the teams that you work with and also the, the people that you speak to, that balance between control that centralized control, but that freedom to go and live the remote dream?

Sebastian Marshall (11:16):

Yeah, I'm, I'm, I'm glad you asked cuz I've, I've gotten this wrong and I've only gotten it wrong in one direction. Some, some executives have gotten this wrong in, in both directions at various times. I've gotten this wrong in the two liberal two autonomy. Wait, why, why isn't that thing right? I've gotten it wrong in that, in that direction, which again, wouldn't happen when you had FaceTime with a person cause you're like, Oh hey, what whatever happened with that thing? And then it's just kind of like, you know, if somebody's kinda like off the grid or if they, if they're only in a meeting that other people are in, it doesn't occur to you or whatever. So this was was actually an issue for us with like, you know, it would never take out a top project. It would never take out a, you know, big deal thing.

Sebastian Marshall (11:49):

And then there's like some stuff that's like trivial that just like happens in real time or even who cares if it doesn't? Hey, oh look, look into this thing. But it's like very speculative, whatever. You know what we did and it was a game changer for us is we actually built and it's not as easy it sounds, it's not a magic bullet, but you know, at one point we said, hey, a lot of like medium size details are like falling through the cracks for us, like medium size stuff, not the big stuff. And like the little tiny stuff can get sniped in real time. So we said, hey, we wanna get to a point. Cuz for us it wasn't just about, you know, management and control and, and and things like that. It was, it was, it was really about integrity, right? Integrity's when your thoughts, words, and actions match and I'm like, hey, we're losing our integrity.

Sebastian Marshall (12:24):

We're like saying we're gonna do some stuff and then not doing what we say. Do you know what I mean? And that's like bad for business, but it's also just like bad for your soul. Like it's just bad and it makes people feel bad. You know, people want freedom and autonomy, but they don't wanna like make a pledge and then not live up to it that nobody wants that, that feels really bad, right? And then people wanna kinda like avoid, I don't even wanna talk about the thing or think about the thing and like, it sucks. So what we did we had a, we had a wonderful transformation, Andy Banez teamwork who I already mentioned. Lee Nolton, our cto myself and some other people in the team contributed. We really sat down and thought about it and we said, Hey, we want to have a hundred percent unbroken agreements.

Sebastian Marshall (12:58):

Unbroken doesn't mean necessarily shipped on the original date cuz you could have estimated wrong or a disaster could come up or a bigger opportunity could come up. But we never, ever, ever want to have the deadline of something roll by or something. Somebody said they're gonna do just not happen quietly. That's like really not okay. Right? So we built an agreements tracker, we built an agreements tracker. Whenever one person agrees to give anything to somebody else, they write a definition done in the agreements tracker and nobody can put anything on the agreements tracker for you except for yourself. So we always ask people to add their own thing in the agreements tracker, right? Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. And you can, you can unilaterally add stuff to the agreements tracker though there's some guidelines on how to do it smarter or not. And then you kind of can't muck around with it after you add it.

Sebastian Marshall (13:38):

You have to either say it's done, it's fulfilled, it's renegotiated, and you can renegotiate liberally. You could say, Hey, I said I was gonna do that, but there's this other prerequisite I said I was gonna make a plan for the next hire. We're gonna do, I actually need to do strategy first. I'm renegotiating the plan for the hire, right? So you could renegotiate, we haven't needed to use the failed box since this was created. And this was some months ago and it was, it was really a game changer for us. So every time somebody makes like a, like a material non-trivial, like really like more than five minutes agreement of a thing that they're not sniping in real time. Yeah. It get added to the agreements tracker. The basic features on there, I could just pull it up and take a look at it right now, is there's the name of what you're gonna do, there's who committed to doing it, that's gonna be you on all of yours.

Sebastian Marshall (14:20):

Who you're accountable to on that, who you promised it to, a definition of done and then the date you're gonna have it done by. Ideally, sometimes we get, you know, we've occasionally gotten this, you know, little sloppy scenario we have to watch. Ideally we don't leave the the meeting or wrap up until the definition of done is agreed. Cuz sometimes a person starts to type the definition down, it's like, whoa, whoa, whoa, that's not what I meant. That's not what I was asking for. Do you know what I mean? Yeah. And I think the game in terms of an agreements tracker is one when team members are using it amongst themselves and it's not a management tool, it's just like a way to track. Because yeah, that's the thing with remote teams, right? Is like, people are all spread out. So you might owe five or six little different things to different people, you know, And if you're all in the same office, like, hey man, where's that thing you just call it over the other side of the room?

Sebastian Marshall (15:01):

You know, you know, but you, you can't do that remote. So yeah, agreements tracker was a game changer, absolutely a game changer for us. I will say this, we sat and really thought about both what the tool would look like as well as the theory of how we would explain it. We did a training when we rolled it out and then Andy was on it like a hawk more helping people than policing them, but a little tiny bit of policing too early. So I mean, it was three weeks from us thinking we wanna do this to really talking about it, pre-running it by people getting people to do one or two demo laps of it with somebody else before we had the group thing. So we really were like, this is gonna work when we did it. And then it did and that was a game changer for us. So just tracking all those agreements, but it's not that simple. You gotta really put the groundwork in. It's not like a magic bullet. You gotta like also do it, you know? But if you do well for us,

Matt Hayman (15:48):

Is that, and how do you do that? Do you track that in notion that set up as a notion

Sebastian Marshall (15:51):

In general, if I don't call out another tool, I mean like we'll do flow charts and different tools, there's certain things that sometimes air tables better, but, but generally speaking we try to use notion for everything first and foremost if we can. It's a great tool, but yeah, sometimes you're forced to use other things, but that's also yeah, agreements tracker in notion it's nice

Matt Hayman (16:06):

At the risk of undermining what you just said about it, requiring some support and training, whether or not you'd consider maybe providing a template that we we could link to.

Sebastian Marshall (16:14):

Yes. yeah, I can add that to the agreements tractor that I promised to do that. Yeah, I tell you what, yeah, we could put that slash wonder or something. We could put some stuff on there. Does that work?

Matt Hayman (16:27):

That would be awesome. Excellent. We'll send people there. That'd be

Sebastian Marshall (16:29):

Brilliant. Yeah, we'll have to set that up and I'll, I'll I will actually add that to the in, I'm not even joking.

Matt Hayman (16:38):

Love it. So while whilst you're typing that up, I wanna, firstly just to reflect back on what you said, I love the approach that you've just described is very much a kind of a philosophical approach that you see in work cycles as well. There's a degree of social accountability. It's recognizing that people sometimes need a bit of a nudge in the right direction, but it's also analytical and it's assessing what's working and not working. And I wanna just pause before we get to work cycles. I wanna just continue to tease that. Talk to me a little bit about your thoughts around social accountability. It kind of links back to what we were saying earlier on in the episode, but the power of social accountability in the office versus remote. Like how do you think about social accountability and in, in whatever way that is?

Sebastian Marshall (17:15):

Yeah, Matt, it's it's the strangest thing in the world, you know, about, it's one of just the really bizarre characteristics about, about humans and, and being human. People are way more willing to let themselves down than to let other people down. It's bizarre. I don't have some like grand theory as to like that this should be the case or that it's great. I'm not endorsing it. I'm, I'm just, you know, they talk about being descriptive versus prescriptive. I'm being des descriptive here. I'm saying that's how people are. So it's like, you're like, Hey, I'm gonna go to the gym. And then it's like, you look outside and it's like raining and it looks cold and you're like, eh, you know? Right. But if you're gonna the gym with your buddy, you're like, well let go to the gym. Like, you don't even really, maybe you don't even wanna go to the gym that much.

Sebastian Marshall (17:53):

You just don't wanna let your buddy down, right? And like, doubly true, if you're going to teach a younger person how to weightlift and you're going to help them, you know what I mean, then you're really going to trudge through slee and snow and not have this young person that you were gonna teach some lift form to waiting on you at the gym. So it's funny, we'll set a goal and we'll let ourselves down. We'll blow our own goal off. But the minute that there's another person looking at you and saying, Hey, how's that thing going? You won't blow them off. Well, here's what's really interesting, right? Obviously that's the case with, you know, all kinds of deadlines, collaborations, and things like that. And sometimes, by the way, this is why like you know, various researchers and artists collaborate is cuz when they're solo, they just, you know, they're like, ah, whatever.

Sebastian Marshall (18:30):

I'm just gonna screw around today. But what's what's really super interesting is it, it can be tapped into, you know, as simply as, as, you know, shooting a text message to you know, a loved one, a family member, a friend, just somebody that's cool that wishes you well. And it's like, Hey, on Friday I'm gonna send you the new song that I compose, or I'm gonna give you the new business thing, or I'm gonna give you the mockups of the website. I did. Would you just take a look at those and call me out if I'm, I'm not getting it through to you. Right? That'll work. And, and this has some implications in, in other settings too, work cycles and, and when we do live work cycles being, being one of them. But yeah, it really just stems from that idea, people are far more willing to let themselves down than other people. A vast majority of people are like that myself included. So I'm not putting anybody down, right? And so, hey, all right, if that's how we are, if that's our, our biology and our neurology le let's just work with it, let's harness that and make something happen from it.

Matt Hayman (19:25):

Hey, here's Matt again. Do you lead remote teams but struggle with spontaneous communication and collaboration? If so, I'd like to invite you to check out our platform, a virtual workspace where teams can connect, collaborate and grow working side by side from anywhere. For a limited time only podcast listeners can use the discount code l r p 30 to get 30% off your first three month subscription or annual plan. Head over to, start your free trial today and use the discount code l r p 30. Now, back to the interview. We've gotta get into work cycles. I think now is the perfect time to do that. So if you can lay out work cycles, what they are, how they operate, let's just go into a bit of a deep dive on work cycles. I'm, I'm fascinated to hear from you how you think about work cycles.

Sebastian Marshall (20:19):

I can give you the whole long story of how it got invented and stuff, but I'll give you the, i'll, I'll just jump to the, like two thirds of the way through the race. So basically it's, it's like this, right? There's dozens of best practices around work that are basically universally agree to be best practices that every now and then you wanna deviate from, but some of them really not, right? Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative> and like they're the right way to do things and most people don't do almost all of them. And sometimes fixing one or two of those that you're getting wrong, right? Is the difference between having a very successful work session and not, if you layer on following as many of the best practices as possible, you're in pretty good shape. So I'll give you an example. Everyone's like, well, best practice around work.

Sebastian Marshall (20:58):

Like, yeah. What we do when we do work cycles is before we sit down to work, there's a very short template. There's a highly designed, by the way, we went back and forth on every single word on there and every single thing in there that could be in there. And that's like, I don't know, version like, I don't know, 3.3 or something. So we're tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet tweaked. Like, it's exactly kind of like laser precise it. I know. It looks like a whole look. That's so smart. Yeah, thanks. No, it looks, it looks very considered. Yeah, we spent time and, and then iterated on too, right? But there's a question on there, like, how will I know it's complete? I'm not looking, I could pull it up and look at it, but I think it's, how will I know it's the, the work is complete or how will I know it's complete?

Sebastian Marshall (21:33):

That's the best practice is, is 19 times outta 20. And somebody always wants to raise their hand and be the exception of like, I come at it wildly and then figure it out. Like, okay, you're great. You know, I mean, I, I, I grant that and I'm aware that there's cases, but most of the time if you're working on like a paper for your PhD thesis and you need to like de-duplicate your data, then you need to like process the data that's dup you know, like you wanna know what complete for that work session looks like. Most people, as crazy as it sounds, do not define what a successful work session looks like before they get started. They don't, They're like, I'm just gonna work on my thesis. They sit down, they say, What am I doing? I don't know, I guess there's the data, but maybe there's this.

Sebastian Marshall (22:08):

And then they're like, Well, let me start rereading. I guess I should check the citation. That kind of, you just kinda get lost in the forest and then at the end of the day, maybe you get something done and maybe you didn't. Whereas if you said before you got started, how, I know this is complete, all right, I've got this messy set of data that I downloaded from government sources about the water pollution levels or whatever, right? And like, ah, I'm not really looking forward to it, but I do have to de-duplicate this data cause it's part of my fundamental research. So what does it look like? I'm gonna get the one data set, then I'm gonna go through it and I'm gonna look for every time that somebody typed their own column in. Then I'm gonna fix all of those. Then I'm gonna clean that up, and then I'm gonna format out a nice table that could go on a research paper.

Sebastian Marshall (22:41):

Then at the end of the session, you have a target that you either hit or you didn't, and your former look could hit it. And you know, you'll also know if you did or didn't. So there's all always best practices before you get into to work and work cycles. So we look at are there any risks, right? Could be internal, you know, procrastination, distraction, aver, boredom type stuff. It could be external plumbers come in, the kids are coming home from school, you know, you might get interrupted by somebody and you can pre decide what you're gonna do with risks in advance. So sometimes, you know, the plumbers coming, right? Are you gonna get back to work while the plumbers there? Are you gonna supervise them? You can kind of pick in advance. Most of the time people don't, you know, if your kids are coming home from school, right?

Sebastian Marshall (23:17):

You're gonna wanna greet them and be a good parent and make sure they gotta snack and they're good and such, right? But, you know, at that point, you know, what are you gonna do when you transition, getting back to work? You're trying to wrap up before the kids get there, or you're gonna like, spend 20 minutes with them and make sure they get set up and then come back so you can kind of preplan and anticipate these sorts of things, right? So we do that, you know, the first time you do work cycles might take a little longer, but after you have a bit of practice in it, five, 10 minutes of setup in the beginning where you're really being analytical and you're, you're kind of taking the puzzle apart, you're making it a winnable game. And typically the typical amount of time spend doing work cycle is four hours.

Sebastian Marshall (23:49):

That's the default block. And it, and it really works. If you do high cognitive work without any breaks, typically for me, I'm usually soaked after about two hours. I could do four hours of work cycles, pretty trivial. I do eight to 10 sometimes hours in the wrong. And it's, it's really no big deal because then in the work cycles format, we work for 30 minutes, then we take a 10 minute break, right? 30 minutes, 10 minute break. The 10 minute break's. Not all a break though. It's not all a break because during every one of those 10 minute breaks, you say, What do I wanna achieve in the next 30 minutes? How will I get started? That's the, by the way, that's the most common cause of procrastination that's easy to fix, which is not how you're gonna get started. As dumb as it sounds.

Sebastian Marshall (24:26):

So you, it sounds so stupid, right? It sounds so obvious, right? It's like, Oh, I need to de-duplicate this data. How will I get started? All right? I guess I gotta go through and look at everything they're named and like highlight on the spreadsheet everything that's named wrong. Yeah, that's the answer. But when you're like looking at it and don't want to do it <laugh> like, you know, Right? All right. And then we also rate every 30 minutes our energy and our morale, right? So by energy, I don't mean this in any sort of metaphysical way, energy is the best word we have for the kind of aggregate. Are you, are you well slept, are you hydrated? Have you eaten? And then morale is, do you wanna be doing the work you're doing in in your general mood, right? Cause a lot of times someone says, I feel bad I can't work.

Sebastian Marshall (25:02):

And it's, I, I think one of the most important personal effective skills is when you feel bad, being able to separate, is this a biological issue or biologically are you fine? And it's more of a motivation, emotional issue. People don't detach those, right? Cause like, look, sometimes people are trying to like get, get positive thinking going when they're like dehydrated. It's like you don't need a positive thinking. Just get some, get some water. You know what I mean? Take a power nap if you're really exhausted, you know, Right. Or whatever. But if you are hydrated and well slept and it's, you know, it's 10:00 AM and you slept fine last night and you had a good breakfast and whatever, and you just don't wanna be doing the work you're doing, that's when you, you know, cut it up smaller, talk yourself into it, do a little positive thinking, whatever that might be.

Sebastian Marshall (25:42):

So doing that after every single cycle, we analyze it, optional debrief at the end. If you do that in our software headquarters, you can also get your graphs and visualizations and charts and stuff over time. As you do more and more of them. Obviously the first time you do it you get, you know, whatever you see a few hours. But over time you can say, here's your most productive and highest head points of the day the highest success rates of the day, and here's when you miss targets and whatever. So that can be kind of neat. But but yeah, it's a, it's a pretty good way to get things done. It's

Matt Hayman (26:08):

Incredibly simple. The way you've described it is, is super interesting. I wanna come back to, to one of the things around setting how, you know, when a piece of work is done. Before that though, I think the social accountability that we touched on before is also important. Cuz you said these can be done generally these are done at, they can be done in isolation, but they are better done with other people will get onto maybe how I, and we do them at wonder, which is a slight modification of what you've suggested. But how important do you think it is to have either a buddy or be part of a group when you're doing work cycles?

Sebastian Marshall (26:36):

Well, I mean that's a, that's naturally a very, very personal question. You know, I guess everybody can introspect right away if they're able to sit and concentrate distractedly without anyone else there. And if they are, then they're good. I think there's still a lot of value in work cycles causes you to, to calibrate. The way we do work cycles over at, at the work gym at Ultra working as a, as a service is we'll have a live moderator there. Say, Hey, there's two minute warning before the next 30 is up. And then it's like, hey, it's, it's the break now. And then there's some useful prompts to go through to make sure people are thinking and keeping pace and whatnot. And that works really grand. I love doing work cycles one on one with somebody that I wanna get some work done with.

Sebastian Marshall (27:12):

It's also a great way, by the way, to like, just get a little bit of lightweight socializing when you're working. Sometimes you don't wanna like chat for like two hours with somebody, you know what I mean necessarily. But like 10 minutes on the breaks, it's kind of like little bit simulates like having a coffee break. You know, it used to be when we had the co-working space, you know, it's like if you were in the kitchen, it was like okay to talk to you if you were concentrating with headphones on, it was like not okay to talk to you. Right? Well now I don't know if somebody's in the kitchen, you know what I mean? From my team. I don't know if they're in the kitchen or, I know that's what y'all are trying to solve at wonder too, by the way. Which is a, it's a yeah for, it's cool, right?

Sebastian Marshall (27:42):

The breaks are like, hey, everybody's getting a break around here so you could chat if you want. Or, or, or go get a coffee. You know, unfortunately when you're getting a coffee now you can't be at the computer and talking to people. Maybe as screens get better, their screens all over your house, it'll happen for better or worse pretty soon. So doing with other people, yeah, I mean it's better. Some people don't need that and don't benefit as much from that. Other people benefit a lot from that. Some people that maybe think they wouldn't benefit do benefit from it. I find a lot of overachievers don't take breaks and then they hit some cognitive threshold and, and then they're, they're smoked. Cuz it's like, again, you know, with pacing yourself, you can put an eight to 10 good hours of, of high cognitive work if everything else is good and you know, you don't have your kids up sick in the middle of the night and stuff. I'm not putting anyone down. It's got a circumstance, I get it, you know. But yeah, you could put an eight to 10 cognitive hours if you just rotate and take breaks and, and and paste them and check in from time to time. Whereas for myself, if I burn hard cognitively no breaks, two, three hours, four hours, I can still work the rest of the day. But I'm usually not in high cognitive performance after that if I do

Matt Hayman (28:38):

That. One of the questions I wanted to ask you was about that one, about knowing what it will look like when done is done. That, that first question that's asked, why, why do you think that is so important? And is it, because what it does is it forces you to start to think about even maybe at an unconscious level, thinking about how you are thinking about the task at hand and whether or not it's doable inside of the time limitations that you've put in place.

Sebastian Marshall (29:02):

Ha You you got it. Hey Cole, you got the interesting answer. Yay. You just said it. This is one of the, this is kind of a subtle advanced point. So this might kind of, you know, I'm not sure how relevant this is gonna be to everybody cause this is like, a lot of people are like, Hey, here's the fundamentals, but actually you just had an advanced point. Yeah. There's actually a feedback loop between, I could set the done bar here, but it would take this amount of time or have this amount of time and risk. So there's like a feedback between quality and the time invested in scope. And when you don't nail that down, you're kind of going for an ambiguous bar and some things are better and some things are worse and it's nasty. So yeah, you're, you're, you're jointly actually when you're setting the done target, you're jointly setting quality and you're allocating certain time and risk profiles to it. Yeah, yeah, that's absolutely correct. Or something we think about is really interesting.

Matt Hayman (29:47):

I think it's a really interesting point because it's almost in a sense you, I mean, yeah you could say it's sort of, you're sort of tricking yourself into starting to, to get get going. The minute you answer that question, the second you answer that question, you already in,

Sebastian Marshall (30:00):

I'm telling you're gonna overthink it, man. Don't, you're, you're taking, you're de magic our thing man. We're like the Disney imagineers. We don't want people to know the magic behind the freaking mouse stuff, man. No no, all in all kidding aside, this is one of the reasons, you know, how do I know it's done is such an important question is cuz there's usually multiple quality levels work could come in at and, and you kind of need to pick, there's usually acceptable quality levels, but they're usually also like, there's stuff that like makes sense at certain quality levels, right? Like you wouldn't like grill up some like hamburgers and hot dogs, American barbecue style and then serve them on like fine China that like doesn't make sense. Like you could, but it would be like really awkward and like it's not the best form factor, you know, like you want paper plates, you wanna just be like throw them away, you know, on the other hand, like you gonna have, you know, fine China, but then you're gonna put like fine China stuff on there.

Sebastian Marshall (30:47):

You get the jasmine rice, you have regular rice, jasmine rice, you know, like you gotta make it like really nice, you know, you wanna have the quality level throughout a project match. A lot of times people don't pick in advance what, and like where maybe we're getting the rabbit hole here, but like very commonly also somebody doesn't pick what done looks like they crank on task one of five, they make it exceptional and they have like screwed themselves. They've shot themselves at the foot because now the next four things need to be stuff that you serve on fine China and like they're stuck. Whereas they really just should have put a paper plate down and start a grilling. But like, you know, and then they would've gotten the good outcome. So yes, specifying done beforehand. Then you're also like, well this is gonna like take a while. Okay, am I sure I wanna do that version of it? Yeah, I need take it down just one notch, like pretty good or start burgers. Okay, cool. Got it. Let's

Matt Hayman (31:31):

Go. Yeah, I'm nodding away cuz I've noticed that as I've done work cycles, I've noticed that I, that the types and the quality of of work that I choose to assign to work cycles, there's, there's certain patterns that start to emerge that I think are really, really super interesting. Excellent. So I just wanna go off on a bit of a tangent and just for, for people who have been exposed to work cycles for the first time, I wanna bring it to life in terms of how we do it or how I do it personally. Cuz I think it's a modified version of what you do and it might bring it to life for people. So typically I'll allocate two hours in a day for two work cycles. Usually one, one after the other. I'll typically start with the 40 minutes and a 10 minute. My personal preference is I like to do 40 and 10, I do 40 minutes go through the, the template that, again we'll try and, we'll, we'll share in the show notes, the free spreadsheet template, start out defining what the work is to be done and then all of the other answers to the questions do that work usually with a buddy in wonder.

Matt Hayman (32:19):

Sometimes with more people, but mainly with one person. And at the 10 minutes I then do 10 minutes, I do sort of a five minute quick meditation using using an app, five minutes, a quick meditation, then five minute review of what's just happened and then start to plan for the next 40 minutes and do that for two hours in a day. And it is incredible the amount of work that you can get done. But also for me personally, I love the meditation afterwards cause I feel refreshed, I feel like I'm completely switched off and I come back to the next one fully refreshed for the next run. So there are, you know, there are ways, lots of everyone's gonna have their own different preferences and different styles. That's what works really, really well for me. So yeah, just wanted to share that with the audience and maybe get your thoughts on that structure.

Sebastian Marshall (32:58):

Yeah, that sounds really cool. And, and you know, something that, that's interesting that I think a lot of people should invest in, I don't have a super prescriptive answer to it cause it's so personal, is I think people should invest in experimenting for what rejuvenation techniques work for them. You know, for, for some people in mindfulness meditation or mantra meditation is gonna do wonders for other people that's gonna call back, you know, memories of za and getting hit with a stick by their teacher or whatever. And it's like the opposite of rejuvenating, right? Some people, you know, like to get a light workout in and get some pushups and other people like to just sit and chill or take their eyes off of the screen, get up and, and fix a coffee or a tea. And, and I think it, it's something to kind of experiment with, especially if you're in the same environment all the time. You're not getting those, those free recess that you get from walking to the co-working space or the office and back. And maybe you're not going out to dinner with your colleagues as often. So some of those rejuvenating activities you gotta go like stack up for yourself. So I think experimenting to find them is really cool and yeah, it sounds like a, sounds like a great system that you have.

Matt Hayman (34:01):

Awesome. So an ultimate question from me then in terms of behavior change. In a previous life I worked in in drug treatment in addiction centers and there's always a big challenge moving from the immediacy of rapid change and making it more long-term and sustainable. And I think that's what I wanted to sort of dig, dig into a little bit with you. Is this the move from novelty to habit. Any advice or tips that you can provide around somebody listening to this for the first time thinking, yes, I'm gonna give this a try, and then it's starting to become embedded in the behaviors day to day. Any thoughts around that? Moving from novelty to habit?

Sebastian Marshall (34:36):

Oh, you got another, you got another few hours. You know, we could go on and on. I mean I think the really, the good news is especially if somebody's brand new to work cycles, I think the good news is that early on especially, there's a bunch of things you get in terms of lessons almost for free. You don't have to try super hard to get them. So your personal skill level goes up, right? One of the big ones is, and so the default times on work cycles 30 10. 30 10, it's a semi universally good one, but people can go 40 10 as you said, or they can go, you go 30 30, sometimes we'll do 30 minutes of work and then 30 minutes of discussion. So that can be a nice, nice format to collaborate with somebody with, right? What's interesting is most people have no idea what they get done in 30 minutes or 40 minutes or an hour.

Sebastian Marshall (35:22):

They actually don't know. In my rough guess, I think, I don't know, two to 3% of the population, it's not scientific, it's just like a guess, but it's like, I don't know, like one outta 30 people maybe ish, one outta a 50 naturally is a time sense where they just know like if I walk down to the corner store, that'll take me four minutes to walk there and I'll get the bread and the checkout will be between this and this and I'll be back in 17 minutes. Like, you know, there's people like that. There's not many, but there's like some people like that, that have a super genius sense of time. Almost no one has this and if you don't have this, you don't have it at all. Do you know what I mean? Unless the person worked in stage management and theater where they're like helping people get in and outta costume so they have to really tight on time or they're in the military or they're in logistics or something that's really tight on time.

Sebastian Marshall (35:59):

So, you know, for free from work cycles, you know, you get, here's what I can get done in 30 minutes or whatever time allocation you use, I recommend 30, but 40 in your case could be, could be good as well. And then you'll actually know, hey, here's what I can get done in 30 minutes. That sounds like a no big deal, but it's actually like a big deal. Cause lot of times people get frustrated cuz they're like, Okay, I'm gonna do these eight things. And it's like, no, you're not like, no, mathematically you're not. You wanna get those eight things done in 30 minutes, that's, you know, four, you know, four minutes, you know, three minutes, four minutes. It's like, no, some of those are gonna take longer than that. So you learn over time and that's really, really good. Cause I think a lot of the frustration early is so it works like it's just a great format that gets you falling best practices.

Sebastian Marshall (36:35):

But a lot of the frustration with work is a lot of times people get frustrated. I, I, I really feel mad a lot of times people get frustrated when they're doing good work. Just the results aren't coming as fast as they thought they had a, a misconception, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you know, and an estimation is one of the worst ones. There might be a great project that takes six hours and you think it's gonna be an hour and a half. So you make, you're an hour and a half, you're two hours and you're three hours and now it took twice as long as you thought you're still not done. And then you kind of set it down and if you'd allocated six hours in the beginning, if your estimation was correct and you chipped it in six hours instead of overrun from an hour and a half, then putting it aside and then like letting it dry out and die, then you'd have been very happy. So over time getting the estimation and like getting those barriers outta the way is really good. Beyond that, you know, pick some people to do 'em with. Pardon me? You seem like you've actually helped people establish all of this stuff from the ground up. I think I should be turning this around. You're being a gracious interviewer. You, you alluded there that you have all that you have maybe some answers. What made people stick with it when they were coming out of those desperate circumstances? It sounds like you've thought ostensibly about this.

Matt Hayman (37:36):

I, I think with any behavior change it's, it's repetition. It's repetition that's key. And I think acknowledging the successes of completing your work cycle is, is really important when you're working with a work buddy as well. I think taking time to, to reflect on, on how well it's gone or not, but if it's gone well that you amplify that and, and elongate that, that positivity that they, that they feel. But I think with any, with any behavior change, it's repetition that, that really makes it become moving away from, from just a novelty. And sometimes that is having a body there on those moments where you think, oh I dunno if I fancy doing a work cycle today, is having that person there to go like, come on, we, you know this, you always seem to do well when we do them. I think bring somebody along with you on that journey is really, really important.

Matt Hayman (38:16):

But I think now where I'm at and the length of time I've been doing it, it's built up its own momentum. I can do them quite freely by myself, but I, I recognize that they work far better when they're with somebody else. So yeah, I think it's just repetition for me, for me at least, it's repetition. That was that's what moved it. And also I was in, when I first started to do it, I was in a situation where I needed to maintain a very, very high degree of output for a very, very sustained period of time. There was no plan B, It had to, you know, that was, that was the way I was gonna get it done. And that's carried me through in those moments where I haven't needed to necessarily maintain such a high degree of output for such a period of time.

Matt Hayman (38:51):

It's carried me through. And I think what you said about, it's also shown me what I'm capable of. Work cycles have revealed to me what I'm capable of when I work at a high productivity rate and for a sustained period of time. And also allowed me to quantify exactly how long it takes me to do certain tasks. Like edit the podcast for example, is a good, is a good one. I know almost to the minute how long it's gonna take me to edit a podcast down. And I know that if I want to get that job done over a couple of maybe two, three work cycles, I know exactly how many it's gonna take. And that in itself is very reassuring. And yeah, I like

Sebastian Marshall (39:23):

That. It doesn't sound that sexy. See anybody that doesn't have this won't get how cool this is when you actually know how long things take. And you could be like, okay, if I'm not screwing around, here's exactly how long. Like you can like build a life very reliably. Cause a lot of times people get in like this creative thing and they're like, I guess it'll take an hour or two and like, you don't know. And then it might run over. Do you know what I mean? When you, like, here is how long this class of activity takes and then if you wanted to take less long, you gotta like do process engineering and op stuff to like make it shorter or, you know, get rid of some, some constraint in there so you can make things go faster, but you have to then work it.

Sebastian Marshall (39:59):

So yeah, very, very cool. The other thing I'll, I'll say by the way, is I, I've, I had an acquaintance who's a really, really good guy. He's like a, a, a law enforcement guy. And, and you know, sometimes cops have a, a, you know, reputation, they're just out to get people or whatever. He was in probation stuff and, and, and really just try to help people get their lives together. He was really just like a sweet, sweetest guy in the world. And, you know, he said the two biggest predictors, if I recall correctly, of, of whether somebody would, would get back into trouble was did they have a job? And do they go, do they get a job? So if they get a job, they're in good shape. And if they don't, they don't. And did they go back and run with the people they got in trouble in the first place.

Sebastian Marshall (40:30):

So if you got a job and you didn't get in with the people that you got into trouble with <laugh>, then you would be not, not going back to that and, and, you know, getting into, you know, potentially substance abuse and crime and such. So yeah. Yeah, I found that, I found that very interesting. Some work that you wanna do, something that can you know, you can be making a contribution and then, and then being around the right people and not around the wrong people as a, as a predictor. So, and I don't know, I don't know how transferable it is, but maybe a little

Matt Hayman (40:55):

<Laugh>. Super, super interesting. Sebastian, I really really appreciate the time you've taken. I've got one more question, if I may. I asked this to all guests Now. If there was one tool, app strategy approach, whatever it might be, one, one tool in the toolkit for remote working for you, what would that be and why?

Sebastian Marshall (41:12):

You know, the one that nobody else is gonna say that you already asked about is the agreements tracker. I love that. And, and if somebody did want to try that out, I would like spend two or three weeks prepping your team and then I would say, Hey everybody, let's target 100% unbroken agreements for one month. That's what we did. 100% unbroken. It doesn't mean they all get hit, you can renegotiate as needed. Right. But that is so, so incredibly powerful. And then we were also like, Hey, if it's not on there, we're gonna be like kind of liberal about it. Maybe it should have been on there. Do you know what I mean? But everything that gets on there either happens or gets renegotiated sufficiently early. And then we staffed it and we had, Andy was looking at it, and especially as the dates got near, or if something was unclear, it'd be like, Hey, this looks a little unclear. What is this? Just, you know, a little bit of coaching and touchups around the edges. But yeah, when everybody just does what they say they're gonna do, and then it becomes second nature and records, it manages it amongst themselves. Oh man, it was a game changer. It was so good.

Matt Hayman (42:07):

Excellent. And, and I really appreciate you offering to put up a bit of a template for us. I'm gonna, me adding that into the show notes, It's, it's very much appreciated. So before we go, Sebastian, thank you again for your time. I've found this fascinating conversation and, and really just skimming the surface, but even still just, just absolutely fascinated by it. Where can people find out more about you and the work that you do? Cause I know work cycles themselves is just one component of what you do. So maybe you could give everybody a bit of an overview and, and find out and how they can find out more about

Sebastian Marshall (42:33):

You. Sure. Hey, we're, we're at ultra, but like I said we'll put up an ultra We'll put up the agreements tracker. We can also put in like work cycles and some other stuff that they could try out. If that stuff's cool, we'll be delighted and, and let us know, You know, if anybody finds us through Wonder and Matt, you know, hey, let us know. I think it's probably kind of, kind of kindred spirit, so the type of people that would like your stuff and, and ours. So yeah, excited to get to know anybody that comes through Wonder. They can also shoot, shoot an email sebastian ultra I'm getting better and better on email. So I started adding that. My email doesn't get a week out of date to the agreements tracker. Right. So I'm, I'm, I do a new one every week.

Sebastian Marshall (43:06):

I add it. And so since then I've, I've never seven days out of date on my email since then, which I miracle a lot of email. But yeah, people have been free me an email. I'd love to hear if they liked anything from the show. Have any questions? Yeah, it's this was a delight, by the way, Matt. This is just really wonderful. Well prepared interview covering a lot of really interesting ground. And then you've thought a lot of all these topics too, so I, I just had a blast, man. This was, this was really great. Thank

Matt Hayman (43:27):

You. Likewise. If we get the chance to do it again, I'd love to do that. Sebastian, thanks again for your time and I'll speak to you soon. All

Sebastian Marshall (43:33):

Right. Thank you. Be well.

Sebastian Marshall (43:36):


Voiceover (43:37):

For listening to Leading Remotely. For show notes, resources, or to discover how you can make remote work for your team, head over to That's

The Structure and Magic of Deep Work w/Sebastian Marshall