How To Ditch Your Distractions Once and For All

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S1: Most people say, well, give me the tips and tricks, give me the life hacks, you know, tell me the settings on my phone that I can use to make it stop distracting me. And that actually that advice doesn’t last for very long. If you are looking for distraction and you blame it on the things outside of yourself without thinking about what is prompting me to distraction, you will always get distracted by one thing or another.

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S2: Welcome to How To I’m science writer David Epstein. Most of us know how frustrating it is to start something that’s important to you and then abandon it. Maybe you get bored with it or maybe move it to the back burner and eventually just falls off the stove, forgotten forever. Or maybe you do come back to it from time to time, but you never actually finish it. I’m looking at you Spanish language lessons. Our listener this week has one too many things in the project graveyard.

S3: My name is Helena. I live in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I’m a mom and four work. I’m a lawyer and I’ve spent probably the last decade plus being really distracted by various things.

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S2: Let’s just start easy. Can you tell us why specifically you reached out to us?

S3: Sure. So I think it was five a.m. trying to just get some things done before my son woke up and it was kind of looking out the window and thinking about, like one more sort of project I had started and not finished. And this case, a little lavender garden. And the plants had been out there in the backyard so long that they had actually grown through the pots or growing into the ground.

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S2: The thing is, Helena doesn’t have this problem at work when there’s a hard deadline, she meets it. But when it comes to personal projects, she finds herself constantly distracted,

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S3: like a cookbook I wanted to make with my mom that sort of got started and kind of went by the wayside. It kind of varies from things I really, really, really should do, like finding a new bank to I mean, an ongoing thing is just like a like a family photo album, which I have never gotten around to, and my son is for I am embarrassed to say that it’s true. I don’t want to like live what I would consider an unfinished life. In some ways I kind of obsess about what my kid’s going to say about me when I’m not around anymore. You know, like, oh, my mom, she had a lot of great ideas, but she she never really made any of them happen.

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S2: For Helena, finishing these personal projects means more to her than you might think.

S3: I’m trying not to get emotional here, but. Didn’t take your time. My dad passed away. Gosh, like six years ago now, and like there are a lot of questions that I feel like I should have asked, like while I had the chance. And. Like, I’m not going to get that chance, so I just want, you know, to be able to answer that those questions. For my son, or at least. You know, I want him to know who I am. Mm hmm.

S2: And so these these projects have it sounds like a very deep, you know, personal resonance in leaving behind what he can know you from. I mean, that’s that’s kind of a beautiful thought. So it is more than just your being annoyed at yourself with, you know, about not not finishing your lavender garden. I’m sorry about your father. Thank you. And what is it that you end up doing instead of of doing those projects when you’re thinking about I mean, do you get distracted by other things?

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S3: Distraction is a really big part of it initially. And like thinking about this, a lot of it is time. There’s 24 hours in a day. And, you know, I have a small child to take care of and I work full time. And distraction is a big thing, I think, in terms of like what you’re paying attention to. And it’s sometimes it feels like a game of whack a mole.

S2: On today’s episode, how to win that game of whack a mole or at least turn it off to focus on what really deserves your attention. This is the first in a two part series on time how to manage it and make the most of it. We’ll hear from time management expert Nir Eyal, who’s done a ton of research, including on himself.

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S1: I want you to know first and foremost that we are cut from the same cloth that I wrote my Indistractable not because I had the answer, but because I was desperate for the answer.

S2: Don’t get distracted. We’ll be right back. When Nir Eyal set out to understand why he and everyone got sucked into time warping distractions, his attention was just as fractured as Helena’s, if not worse.

S1: I was pretty much the most distracted person you’d ever met. I was checking my phone instead of being with my daughter. I mean, you’re you’re a lawyer who’s killing it at work and you follow through in the workplace. I didn’t even do that. It took me five years to write my book about distraction. Guess why? Because I kept getting distracted. It’s embarrassing.

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S2: Nir says he did all the obvious stuff, he turned off the push notifications on his phone, but none of that worked. You know, it doesn’t help. We’re living in what’s been dubbed the age of distraction. Parents are stressing about their kids having too much screen time while the parents themselves are rarely putting down their own phones, just infinitely scrolling social media, spending hours bingeing Netflix. Speaking of Netflix, comedian Bo Burnham put it really well in his recent special Inside.

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S4: Welcome to the Internet. Have a look around. Anything that brain of yours can think of can be found. We’ve got mountains of content, some better, some worse. If none of it’s of interest to you, you’d be the first. Welcome to

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S2: the Internet. But wait anyway. Where were we? Oh, right. The age of distraction. And yet, Nir says this is nothing new.

S1: We know that the Greek philosopher Plato complained about this very problem 20, 500 years ago. He called it a krasnaya in the Greek, the tendency to do things against our better interest

S2: so we can’t blame it all on modern technology.

S1: I got myself a flip phone from the nineteen nineties and a word processor off of eBay that they don’t even make anymore. And wouldn’t you know it, I thought, OK, now I’m off the Internet, I’m not going to get distracted anymore. And then I would say to myself, oh but there’s that book on the shelf or I should probably take out the trash. And I found one distraction after the other, after the other. And that’s when I realized it wasn’t about what was happening outside of me. It was really about what’s happening inside of me. That distraction really does begin from within. Now, the good news is that we’re not powerless, that there are some techniques that anyone can use to become Indistractable.

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S2: The first step to becoming Indistractable is to understand what a distraction is, you might think distractions are easy to identify, right, since you’re encountering them on a daily basis, but in order to understand distraction, you need to first identify the opposite.

S1: So most people will tell you the opposite of distraction is focus. But that’s not exactly right. The opposite of distraction is not focus, the opposite of distraction. If you look at the origin of the word is traction. So traction by definition is any action that pulls you towards what you intend to do, things that are in accordance with your values, things that help you become the kind of person you want to become. The opposite of traction is distraction. Distraction is any action that pulls you further from what you plan to do, things that you are not doing with intent, things that pull you further away from your values and pull you further away from becoming the kind of person you want to become.

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S3: I definitely think that makes a lot of sense. And like traction. That’s actually a word that I’ve used myself before to describe what I’m not getting in certain respects.

S2: This is crucial. Release yourself from moralizing about everything you do. If you were planning to watch a video on YouTube, then technically not a distraction.

S1: It’s not about how you spend your time. It’s about whether you spend that time with intent. So as as Dorothy Parker said, she had this wonderful quote. She said, The time you plan to waste is not waste of time. For example, one of my biggest distractions was I would sit down to work on some big project. I had my to do list and I said, OK, now I’m going to I’m going to focus. Here I go. But before I do that big project, let me just check email real quick. Right. So just because something feels like work, whether it’s returning emails or, you know, scrolling a slack channel where the case might be doesn’t mean it’s not a distraction. In fact, that’s the worst kind of distraction because it tricks you into not realizing that it is, in fact, a distraction.

S2: So what’s the root cause of this distraction in the first place? Nir says there are really two types.

S1: The first kind is kind of the usual suspect, it’s the external trigger. So these are the pings, the dings, the rings, your boss, your kids, anything outside of you that can lead you off track. That’s what most people tend to blame. But it turns out that studies find that that’s only 10 percent of the time that you get distracted. Is it because of an external trigger? The other 90 percent of the time that we go off track, the other 90 percent of the time we check our phones, for instance, is because of what we call an internal trigger. An internal trigger is an uncomfortable emotional state that we seek to escape. So boredom, fatigue, loneliness, anxiety, uncertainty, stress, these are the primary drivers of distraction and procrastination. And one of the most important things to realize is that this is not a character flaw. This is not some kind of moral deficit in any way. The very first step where we must start is to understand that time management is pain management. Time management is pain management. So the very first step and we heard some of this very charged emotional language earlier when you were describing the experience that you were having, is to understand what are the internal triggers, starting with, I think, this fear of leaving things unanswered? I think this is a very emotional reaction that that you had. And I appreciate you sharing it so much around your father, because what happens with people who get distracted and procrastinate is that the procrastination, the delaying of the task becomes a coping mechanism to help us not face that fear that we’ll fail somehow at the tasks. How does that resonate?

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S3: You know, I’m trying to draw the connection between that and just wanting to have, like all the information and all the options.

S2: What about for, like, the photobook and stuff? Do you think that’s applicable there, too?

S3: Yeah, because I was looking for the best quality, like photo reproduction and I found like a company that I liked and their website turned out to be too difficult for me to navigate. And then I just moved on to something else that was, you know, seemed more important at the time and have not returned to that particular project.

S2: Helena feels like her lack of execution can be attributed to too much information and just too many choices, that’s totally valid. But the fear of being bored and being left alone with your thoughts, that’s probably a bigger motivator than you realize. There was actually a study done by psychologist Timothy Wilson where he fooled subjects into thinking they were participating in one study. But in fact, the real experiment was leaving them alone in a waiting room with nothing at all to do except to press a button that would give themselves an electric shock.

S1: And all they had to do was just sit there and wait until the researcher returned and do nothing. Essentially, all they could do is if they wanted to shot themselves and they’d be the last thing you do, right? Well, it turns out that two thirds of men and about one third of women would rather administer a painful lecture, an electrical shock, than to just sit in silence and be bored for a few minutes because boredom is an uncomfortable sensation. It is a very powerful internal trigger. And so, you know, we need stimulation.

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S3: You guys, I don’t know about the study in the room, but I don’t know if there are any moms in there. But I would have micro naped I don’t know about that button and I don’t know about that at all.

S2: That would have been a better use of time than shocking yourself.

S1: There’s actually another interesting phenomenon called revenge procrastination, which is when at nighttime, typically people will scroll on their phones in bed despite the fact that we feel super tired, you know, we want to go to sleep and yet we stay up later and later looking at our phones, even though all we want to do is go to sleep. Why do we do that? And so the the theory is, is that it’s when our life feels out of control, this is something we can control.

S2: Electric shocks and revenge, procrastination aside, identifying your own external and internal triggers. In other words, the underlying reasons you’re feeling uncomfortable is step three and becoming Indistractable step for actually making a schedule.

S1: And it doesn’t have to be for every minute of your day. But at least in some parts of your life, what we want to do is to turn your values into time. So I would ask you next few days here to ask yourself how much of a priority are these things? Are they really even important? Right. Is the Lavender Garden or the photobook, whatever it is that that will help you live according to your values, do you want to make time for those things? And nobody says you have to, right? Nobody’s judging you. Nobody’s saying there needs to be a lavender garden. Nobody says there needs to be a photo book other than you. But if that’s important to you, then what I would invite you to do is to put that time on your calendar to book an appointment with yourself for a set amount of time.

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S2: That calendar technique is called Time Boxing, where you make a specific block for each task on your calendar and it’s pretty effective. Plus, it helps us answer the age old question. What’s better to do lists or calendars?

S1: Running your life on a to do list is one of the worst things you can do for your personal productivity, because it has this effect of reinforcing a self-image of someone who doesn’t live with personal integrity. There’s ever an end to the number of tattoos on a to do list. And so that has the psychological effect of every day. You see this list of things you still haven’t done. And day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, you’re reinforcing your self-image of someone who doesn’t do what they say they’re going to do. And that begins to take a psychic toll.

S3: Yeah, and what I would say is, I mean, the list thing doesn’t really work for things that, you know, I guess I don’t know how to describe it, but the things that have a like don’t have a definite end date or that have a just a broader sort of picture, I guess, right?

S1: Absolutely. Absolutely. So what we want to start doing is to stop measuring ourselves based on how many little cute boxes we check off and instead measure ourself by a different metric. And that metric of success is, did I do what I said I was going to do without distraction for as long as I said I would? That’s it. What I invite you to try is to say I’m going to work on this task. It’s in my calendar. Just like an appointment with a good friend or your boss or a colleague. You wouldn’t miss that appointment. So I want you to make that a point with yourself and this task, and I’m guessing you already do this at work because you’re a successful lawyer. So, you know, to get things done at work, you have to pay full attention. You can’t do many things at once. It turns out studies find that when people measure themselves by this technique, those people, it turns out, actually accomplish more. They actually get more things done than the people who run their life with a to do list.

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S2: So designating the time rather than the task.

S1: Exactly.

S2: Helena, what do you think about that?

S3: I like the idea. I think what would I mean, it would definitely bother me to not get anything done. And sometimes that’s how it feels like I’m just I’m not going to get any of this done because I only have like 10, 15 minutes or I’m going to get interrupted. So it’s like, why bother? But, yeah, I mean, it’s definitely a good place to start.

S2: So that’s step five. You need to reframe how you see your accomplishments, count the input, not the output, instead of counting success as just did I finish this project your success should be based on. Did you work on your project for the allotted time without distraction? But what happens if life really is getting in the way? When we come back, Nir will help Helena balance these rules with the reality of being a busy lawyer and a busy parent. Don’t go doom scrolling just yet. We’ll be back in a minute. We’re back with Helena and our procrastination busting expert Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable, telling yourself, you’ll set aside time to do something that sounds great. But the reality for so many of us is you sit down to work on something and ping another email from your boss or from your tyrannical podcast producer or your kid comes careening into the room like that little girl on the BBC. I would be surprised if they do.

S1: The pardon me

S2: is.

S3: So that’s, I think, part of the problem for me. It’s like a triage like and you know, I think a lot of this has to do with becoming a parent. You kind of have to triage. I’ve just felt like I’ve been in survival mode for a while and and maybe just kind of starting to come out of it. So, like, you know, choosing one thing. And I mean, it’s like whatever is most urgent that day when I have a half hour, like, that’s what I’m going to do.

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S2: This is why flexibility is key when making and sticking to a schedule. But you also need to account for the possible distractions in all three of your life domains, you, your relationships and your work.

S1: You are at the center of these three life domains. So how is that time that you are making for yourself allocated? Do you have time for proper rest? Right. We tell our kids that they have to have a bedtime, but do we have a bedtime as adults? Whatever is important to you is that time on your calendar. Then we can go into the relationship domain. Have we made time for our closest friends and family members? Is that time on our schedule or do we give people whatever scraps of time are left over after everything else is done? And then finally, with our work domain, you know, many people are so busy doing what’s called reactive work. They’re running around reacting to emails, reacting to meetings, reacting to slack notifications that they don’t have any time for reflective work. But of course, reflective work is the kind of work that can only be done without distraction. The thinking, the strategizing, the planning has to have that time carved out. So I hear from so many people and I used to do this, too. Oh, you know, the world is so distracting these days. Did you hear what happened in the news? And my boss wants this and my kids want that. But when you say, OK, well, what did you get distracted from? Show me your calendar. Oh, there’s nothing on my calendar.

S2: Mm hmm. Hell no. What if you were going to try this week since we also talked about priorities, right? If you were going to try this time boxing like with something as simple as looking for one afternoon or evening or little chunk of time a week, which of the projects do you think you would you would start with? And do you think that might be useful to sort of pick one?

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S3: Yeah, I’m trying to think of like something like bigger like like I want to write a book. I want to write a book. Yeah.

S1: Fantastic. That’s that’s that’s a great one. OK, a lot of people want to write books.

S3: I know it sounds ridiculous.

S1: No, no, it’s fantastic. It’s not ridiculous at all.

S2: You’re talking to two guys who have written books.

S1: Yes, exactly. Who have struggled. I know about you, David, but writing a book sucks. It’s really hard, right?

S2: Oh, my God. There’s a definite reason I’m not writing a book right now.

S1: It’s very, very hard work. And all you want to do is delay and procrastinate and research something and make up every excuse in the book. Why you can’t write right this minute? Because it’s hard. But what does that mean? Right. The number one reason we don’t do something is because we don’t feel like it. I don’t feel like going to the gym. I don’t feel like writing my book. I don’t feel like doing this thing. What are those things? They are internal triggers then. That’s why that’s the most important step, is figuring out how do I deal with that discomfort.

S2: One really common difficulty that Helena has with getting started on tasks is a fear that she won’t do them exactly right because she doesn’t have enough time or again, she’s paralysed by too many options. This is where another technique comes in. This one’s called the ten minute rule.

S1: I can give in to that distraction, but not right now, because the orthodoxy today, most people think the way to not get distracted is abstinence. Tell yourself, no, don’t do it. You’re a bad boy or girl. Don’t give in. And it turns out that that is exactly the wrong thing to do with most types of distractions. So instead of telling yourself, no, you want to tell yourself not yet. So what I do when I am doing my writing and all I want to do is get distracted by something and let myself do something other than the writing is. I’ll set a timer for ten minutes, just ten minutes. And for those ten minutes I have two choices. I can either get back to the task at hand, go back to whatever it is I said I was going to do with that time, or do what psychologists call surf the urge and surfing the urge acknowledges that these uncomfortable sensations, the uncertainty, the fear, the stress, the board on the loneliness, the anxiety, whatever the case might be, these are fleeting. They don’t feel like they’re fleeting. They feel like they’re going to last forever, but they never do. And so if we can ride those sensations like a surfer on a surfboard to just surf that urge for just ten minutes while we will find is that nine times out of ten, by the time that timer goes off in just ten minutes, we no longer feel that urge. We’ll be right back at that task at hand. And so what happens is over time, we train ourselves to turn the ten minute rule into the eleven minute rule and the 12 minute rule and the 15 minute rule and the twenty minute rule. And we begin to build an identity of someone who is Indistractable, someone who can master these internal triggers.

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S2: To hold yourself accountable, the ten minutes you can use a timer, I actually use an old school big clock called a time timer and it has this red disk that disappears at the Times winding down. And that helps me visualize how long I have left or are there apps that are also pretty compelling?

S1: I use an app on my phone called Forest that plants a little virtual tree on your screen. It basically is this countdown timer that restricts you from checking your phone and doing anything with it, because if you do this cute little virtual tree on your screen gets chopped down. So it’s it’s just a little reminder to tell you, nope, that’s not what you plan to do with your time, because, again, it’s it’s about intent.

S2: This leads us to our last step. Make a pact. A pact is a pre-commitment device. You decide in advance that there’s going to be a real repercussion if you don’t do what you said you’re going to do.

S1: It’s the last line of defense, it’s a firewall. Now, this technique does not work if you don’t do the other three steps first. So that’s my warning here. OK, but if you’ve done the other three steps first, it can be very, very effective. So the way that I took this up a notch, David, was when I had my book and I’ve been research researching for four years around this book. And then I just I just needed to write the darn thing. I just need to finish it. And so I made a bet with my friend Mark, and I said, if I don’t finish my manuscript by January 1st, I will pay you ten thousand dollars. Write. It was an amount that had to hurt. Right. And and of course, people said, oh, that’s crazy. I mean, that’s so much money. How could you do that? Well, of course. Do you think I had to pay in the money? No, because that bet that I made with him, that disincentive that what we call a price pact was enough of added motivation now that I had done the other three steps first to get me to actually crank out the book and keep my money.

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S3: Yeah, there’s no 10 grand coming for me. I don’t know. But it’s got to hurt.

S1: Yeah, it’s funny. There was a woman who who wrote to me, she had written her own manuscript and she had to edit it, but she’d been procrastinating for over two years. And so she made a pact with her children that she called the the cut or cut pact on a certain day. If she didn’t finish editing her manuscript, she would either get to cut a piece of cake to celebrate that she had finished editing her manuscript or she would let her three kids cut her hair. So it was enough of a disincentive. But it’s not as severe as, let’s say, a ten thousand dollar bet.

S2: The trick to the pact is that it’s got to hurt. You can’t say if I don’t do this, I have to donate to my favorite charity because that’ll still make you feel good. Instead, it has to be something that you’d really dread in order to serve as proper motivation.

S1: After we do that, that sets the stage for us to finally look at ourselves and say, wait a minute, do I actually want this? Do I really want to do this photobook? Do I really want to do that lavender garden or is this just noise and I’m OK with my life and if you’re OK with it, awesome. Nobody’s going to tell you to do anything different. But at some point we have to ask ourselves, what do I actually want? Which is why a calendar is so effective when we sit down with our values and ask ourselves how do we want to spend our time? It’s this trick of applying it to various areas of our life that’s difficult. And this is very, very common. You’ll see people who are super productive, super focused in one area and not so much in another, because it’s this misalignment of figuring out in advance how we want to spend our time.

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S2: Helena, if you were going to start formally scheduling, you know, one of your projects, what what would it be like if you were going to start doing that next week?

S3: So, I mean, it would probably be like. The photobook,

S1: is there a particular time on your calendar where you think that would be doable,

S3: like 4:00 or 5:00 a.m.?

S1: OK, well, look, you know, part of the answer might be this is not a priority because, you know, there’s a reason that we use the same language that we use with time that we do with money. Right. We make money just like we make time. We spend money just like we spend time. We pay attention, just like we pay with dollars and cents. And so unlike money, we have a fixed amount of time. Right. You can always make more money. You can’t make more time. Right. Part of the beauty of time boxing is that it forces you to make a trade off. You can’t do it all. You only have 24 hours in a day. Either you will schedule your time or your time will be scheduled for you.

S3: Right.

S1: It’s happening whether you like it or not. The question is, will you be in charge of it or will somebody else be in charge of it? But how about experimenting with this upcoming weekend with I’m going to book one hour for myself to work on this photobook or your creative writing project, for example?

S3: Yeah, I think that would definitely work better for me and make more sense. It’s really hard, but like you and I had of of other, you know, other people and.

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S1: Well, it’s also in a way, if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t give your all to your family or to your work. Right. You are at the center of your three life domains. You are the most important person in your world. And so it is through self care. It is through prioritizing yourself that you can give the most to your son, to your husband and to your work.

S3: Yeah, one hundred percent agree. Does this sound like a hopeless case?

S1: No, not at all. But nothing is going to change unless you do. I hate to tell you that it’s not going to take care of itself. It’s probably the least hopeless case I’ve ever heard. This is easy peasy because I deal oftentimes with people who can’t find focus in any area of their life. You have these skills like you’re cranking in at work, right? You can do this.

S3: Well, thank you so much, Nir. And thank you, David. I really appreciate you guys talking to me about this.

S2: Thanks to Helena for sharing her story with us and to Nir Eyal, for all his useful advice, make sure to look for his book Indistractable how to Control Your Attention and choose your life.

S3: Hi, everyone. This is Helena. And I just wanted to give you a quick update. One of the most helpful things for me, I think, was the idea of setting a time limit. And then even if you don’t actually finish the thing, you still treat it as advancing that project because you basically moved it forward. And that’s the win for the day. Sometimes as far as the photo goes, I have blocked some time out next week. So I consider that a success.

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S2: And if you’re thinking, great, now, I’m going to be Indistractable, but how do I set myself up to actually reach my goals? Well, you’re in luck because next week deadline expert Chris Cox has some secrets that you don’t want to miss. So block out that time box on your calendar now. Do you have a problem that needs solving? Send us a note at how to its slate dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And we might have you on the show. And if you like what you heard today, please give us a rating and a review and tell a friend that helps us help more people. How TOS executive producers Derek John, Rachael, Alan Margret, Kelly and Rosemary Belson produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director Charles Duhigg is host emeritus. I’m David Epstein. Thanks for listening.