Box of Crayons Blog


Marina Darlow Finds Freedom in Systems

Are you looking to be more productive? Then settle in for this interview with my guest Marina Darlow. Marina is a project manager and productivity geek. It’s her job to create systems and structures for creative types and entrepreneurs who maybe don’t find creating these things as fun and interesting as she does.

She sees her job as helping people to get 10 to 20 more productive hours a week, to stop leaking money, and to prevent stress-fuelled breakdowns. She also has expertise in creating systems for people with ADHD.

Tune in as Marina and I discuss:

  • How a good system will support creativity and innovation.
  • Where to get started, and why getting started might trigger more emotional challenges.
  • How to allot time to focus on the important things.
  • Why a group approach to time management can build in accountability.

Be sure to check out Marina’s company Vision Framework or follow her on Twitter @VisionFramework.

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Full Transcript

Michael:     If you’re like me, you have wrestled with the challenge of building systems to be a little bit more productive. If you’re like me, you’ve read a ton of books about blocking out calendars, building habits, doing all this sort of stuff. And what I notice in my own life is that some of those things stick, but some of them really don’t stick.

I mean, for instance, one of the things that really doesn’t work for me is to put a block in my calendar that says, “Michael to write creative genius stuff,” because I find myself doing email, pretty much doing anything but whatever the task was that I assigned myself.

So I got to ask, actually a woman called Marina Darlow reached out and said, “Look, let me come on your podcast. Let me talk.” And I didn’t know much about Marina. I know that she’s kind of focused on productivity. I know that she has a focus on working with folks with ADHD. So, I went, “If you can help people with ADHD be more focused, be more productive, use systems effectively, I bet there’s something that we can all learn from that.” And that is true. There is stuff here that we can learn. … particularly great insight around where you begin to implement systems. Where’s the starting point? If you’re thinking to yourself, “My life is chaos. Where do I even start?!” I think you might find an answer here in this podcast. So here it is. Me talking to Marina Darlow, talking about building systems for people who struggle with building systems.

Marina, I am excited to have you on the call, because I know we’re going to get into systems and structures that help people be more productive, have more impact in the world. But, you know, I start every call by asking my guests, “What’s the thing you’re taking a stand against? What’s the thing that irritated you enough that you built a business around it, wrote a book around it, took a stand against it?” Whatever it might be. So what, for you, is the thing you’re taking a stand against?

Marina:      Oh, Michael, thank you for having me here, first thing.

Michael:     Sure.

Marina:      My, I guess, core idea is that systems don’t have to be necessarily rigid and dry and boring. And, in fact, that systems is not the opposite of creativity. This is not something stifling the free spirit and the joy of creation. It’s actually two complementing things: good, supporting systems is something that helps you create. It’s something that enables you rather than puts, like, stifling boundaries around the way you work.

Michael:     I love that. Because I can feel that in myself. I have a tension. One is, I know from my own work in the world of creativity and innovation that creativity only flourishes within boundaries; unless you know what you’re working within, it’s hard to work. On the other hand, I have a dreaded fear of systems and structures that drag me down and somehow compromise my grand freedom. So I’m excited to dig into this.

Let me ask you this. Part of the challenge I find with systems is I feel that sometimes they’re not—they’re being imposed on me, and they’re not there to help me. They’re really there to hinder me. How do you help people, as a starting point, get over their own anxiety around systems and having structures to try and help them behave in a certain way?

Marina:      That’s an amazing question because, first of all, I come against it a lot. And this is probably, you know, the vast majority of systems and people that I work with. First of all, a good system that actually is helpful, I discovered, needs to have a built-in choice. It has to be flexible. For instance, you know, if you have a calendar, instead of—there’s some people that it works of them—but what I found that flexibility means, for instance, that you don’t schedule everything to the minute, and you put Task A and Task B, and Task C. But instead, let’s say, you have a block that says “Writing,” and in it you have a checklist of things that you could do. You could write a blog entry. You could create the outline for your next marketing strategy. You could craft your next course. Or something along those lines. So, there is choice, and the choice is limited. But it still offers you flexibility, kind of a blend of flexibility and support.

Michael:    Okay, so if I come to you, and I’m like, “Okay, I’m a bit all over the place. Help me be more effective in the work I do,” where do we start? I mean, do you start with, “Okay, let’s look at your calendar and let’s find a system that works with your calendar?” Or do you start with email? Or, you know—where do you begin the journey? Because, for me, and maybe others listening in, part of it’s around, “I don’t even know where to begin to try and get this stuff under control.”

Marina:      You know, it’s—it’s an amazing question because it addresses the exactly the very intersection that I’m most interested in. And that would be where systems meet emotion. Because in my work what I learned that, and it was a big surprise for me that, dealing with systems comes very quickly to touch upon some deep core emotional challenges.

Michael:     For sure.

Marina:      You know, we need a system around money. Okay, let’s put a system around money in place. Oh, people discover that maybe they don’t charge enough and then it delves into questions of self-worth. Or they forget to charge. Maybe they’re not organized enough, or maybe, again, it’s a question of deeper kind of doubt in what it is that they really, you know, that they really provide. They’re not sure in their services. And so on.

So, to your question back to what you asked, I like to first figure out what hurts. It’s actually something I learned from Naomi Dunford a while ago. If you would come to me and say, “I’m all over the place, and how do I become more structured?”, this is where I would ask, like, “Where does it hurt the most?”

Michael:     Okay, so let me play this out with me. So, if I look at where I’m scattered at the moment in terms of how I run my company, Box of Crayons, I’d say the thing that creates the—the emotion that I notice is anxiety. And I’d say that it has to do with not feeling like I’m supporting some of my team members closely enough. So, can we work with that? Is that a useful place to start?

Marina:      Oh, absolutely.

Michael:     So I’m anxious. I don’t feel I’ve quite—I don’t think I’m—I’ve got a pattern in the past of kind of managing people by going, “Look, go and do this and I’ll talk to you in a year’s time to see how it went.” And I’m trying not to do that, but I’ve got a sense of anxiety that that might be happening again. So, where do we go from here?

Marina:      First of all, we see what kind of a feedback loop you have in place, provided you have a feedback loop. And then we would examine your, kind of, process of communication and see if there are any gaps in there, like …

Michael:     So, part of I’m just trying to also generalize this for folks listening, because they don’t really care about how I’m managing my people. But the importance of the feedback loop, what is that giving us? How is that going to help us build a better system?

Marina:      Well, for instance, it helps you know, like, the key question, “What’s done? What’s wrong? What’s next?”

Michael:     Right.

Marina:      And it helps you figure out, you know, you probably have a plan, where what you want to get done and where you want to go. The feedback helps you understand where you are in this process, where you are in this story, if you will. And if you need to tweak your way. Sorry, you were going to say something.

Michael:     Yeah, I was. So that’s already interesting, because I can feel myself, as I think about that, you know, I’m arriving with a sort of an anxiety and a free sort of floating sense of concern. And as soon as you build in a feedback loop—so, I’m gathering data— actually, I’m now immediately beginning to feel a little more grounded as to what’s going on and kind of a slightly better touch with reality, you know, what’s going on, what’s working, what’s not working. So that’s helpful immediately. Once I’m starting to see that from the feedback loop, and, you know, Marina, part of what I like about that is, is all this great stuff about building habits is based on ongoing feedback. So you get to adjust and refine the work that you do. What happens then? After I’ve got the feedback loop happening, where do we go?

Marina:      You see, if something is going great and then, you know, the person moves on to the next wonderful thing they have to do for you. Or you need, you know, you see how you adjust and you kind of chart the new course, the new story. Say, “Okay, this didn’t go through. What happened?” You know, examine what was the course of it. Maybe you didn’t give them enough time. Maybe the task was too big and they didn’t understand you correctly. (Indiscernible) was a great example, way back when I was interning for a wonderful, wonderful designer. And she told me to—I was, as I said, a lowly intern—she told me to figure out insurance quotes for her two cars. I asked which cars, and she’s like, “Their old data is in that file. Okay, I go in, I go into the file, spend four hours quoting different insurance companies, come to her with the results. And she’s, “No. These are not the cars I meant. The cars are … whatever, this big Ford and this golden van.”

Michael:     Right, right.

Marina:      Like, okay, what happened here? We’re both frustrated. The work didn’t get done. She feels like she has to do everything herself.

While, in fact, all she had to do was she had to communicate clearly what it is that I actually needed to do. And if something like that happens, the feedback loop allows you to examine where the breakdown occurred, and say, “Okay, maybe next time I need to make sure that the information that I delegate is in a very, very clear place, that we both know what we’re referring to.”

Michael:     Got it.

Marina:      And for example we need to make sure that we have a good system to access information, to enter it, to use it, to relay it to other people in your team.

Michael:     Alright, Marina, we have these three quick questions that we ask, typically somewhere in the middle of the interview. So here they come. And the very first one is this. What’s the crossroads you came to, what’s the decision you made that when you made it, when you took a turn, made all the difference for you, had the big impact on your life?

Marina:      There were a couple big crossroads, one at the very, very beginning of my entrepreneurial road. A mentor asked me, “What do you want the world to be as a result of your work?” And it turned out that the response to this question for me completely changed what I want to do. Instead of trying to think what I know how to do, what I would enjoy doing, I figured I want to make the world in a certain way. It’s actually a very personal question.

And that drove, ultimately, the fact that I want to support people who make an impact. I want to support specifically people who make the world better. But at the time, I worked a lot with therapists and artists, and this is kind of how I discovered that these are people that need systems, and systems is something I can help with.

So that was that. A while ago, a short while ago, there was another turning point when I realized that the way I was doing my business before doesn’t work at all. Word of mouth in a big city doesn’t work as word of mouth in a very small state.

Michael:     Right.

Marina:      And this is kind of—I was in such a little place. And then I read probably the entire archive of Naomi Dunford’s Ittybiz blog. And then wrote her a heartfelt message, which never happened to me before, and decided that I can do this and I can go online, which is what I am doing now. You know, I work with people from all over the world. That was a big, big moment for me.

Michael:     Nice. That moment, getting permission to reach out, to finding the right people and not just the people who are close to you.

Marina:      Yes. And also understanding that it’s doable. Not just doable in a general sense, but doable for me specifically. That was a big …

Michael:     Yeah, nice. So the second question is, whose work has influenced your work? And you’ve already mentioned Naomi Dunford, who I knew Naomi a little, so that’s wonderful. Who else’s work has influenced your work?

Marina:      David Allen, that we talked about.

Michael:     Yeah, fantastic. For people who don’t know David Allen, he’s the author of Getting Things Done. Is there somebody else?

Marina:      I really like the work of Laura Roeder, the woman who founded Edgar. Both because her—she’s very no-nonsense. And she actually, her software, is a wonderful example of a system that makes it as engaging as possible, to update social media. It’s easy. It’s free-flowing. It’s kind of fun colours. Very humoristic language, but in a good way, like it’s not cutesy. So you really feel that you interact with the system and it ultimately helps you.

Michael:     Nice. I can see she’s a mix of both role-modelling what a good system looks like, but also helping you grow your business, which is great.

Marina:      Absolutely.

Michael:     So third and final question is simply this. What do you consider your great work at the moment? I mean, good work is the everyday getting things done, but great work is the work that has more impact and the work that has more meaning. So I’m just curious, how do you frame that for yourself right now?

Marina:      Thank you for this question. My great work—and I would take it into the places, the direction in which I want to develop in. I’m really, really interested in how systems and emotion intersect. How people interact with systems on an emotional level. Because ultimately, there’s kind of no going away from it. Very soon, when you interact with a system, you encounter some kind of emotion, especially if the system is not your forte.

So I just launched a free class that examines how do you know where to start, if you’re struggling with systems? Which systems you need to tackle first. And it guides people through kind of an emotional step-by-step process to calibrate and to find out what bugs them the most. Which system evokes the most emotion, either way, and ultimately, how that affects whether they need to give it some TLC or that system could be put on the back-burner because it’s okay for now.

Michael:     Nice. So kind of building the systems that support the systems.

Marina:      Yes, yeah. Building the systems that you need based on your emotional response.

Michael:     Nice. I love that. Alright, Marina, we’ll get back to the regular interview now. So, my thing was around managing people, but for the people who most typically show up and say, “Marina, can you help me with this?” what are they struggling with? What are the kind of the challenges they typically face?

Marina:      Two big things now is time management and prioritization. And money. Like, how do you deal with money? How do you budget?

Michael:     Got it. Let’s talk about the time management piece. Because, you know, one of my very earliest mentors—it was David Allen, who I know you know of, of course—but there’s also a guy called Tony Swartz, at one of his (indiscernible), look you can’t even manage time. You can only manage energy. So how do you help people think about how to spend their precious minutes on this planet?

Marina:     You know, it really depends on the person. I actually have a great story for it, in a second. So, normally we will start with mapping out, you know, a person’s week and saying, “Okay, let’s see what percentage of your time you think you spend on, you know, four keys activities: let’s say you work with your clients, you write, or you’re an author, you maybe meet with people you do research.” And you identify a few of these activities and you say, “I think I want to spend 30% of my time writing for my blog and another, whatever, 50% of my time working face-to-face with the clients in my practice, and so on. And then we map out the week. We create kind of time blocks according to—you know, you want to work 40 hours a week? Great, 30% of 40 hours, we do the math and we allocate time for that.

Michael:     Right.

Marina:      And then, within each block, we create choices—what can you do?—to make sure there is some flexibility.

Michael:     Got it.

Marina:      But I found that—you know how we talked about systems being compatible with a specific personality and a specific business? So that wonderful block method, you know, I found some people it’s—they become defiant. “I don’t want to do that.” If it’s on my calendar, I know pretty much what it is that I’m not doing.” And we still have to plan. You still have to figure out what to do next, because that’s kind of like the whole point of managing your time, and …

Michael:     So the calendar blocking doesn’t work, because honestly that typically doesn’t work for me. I’m okay if somebody else is put in interview, like you and I talking now. But if it’s like, “Okay. I need to do this. I’m going to block this time out for my calendar.” I then just ignore that. I’m not very good at that.

So if that doesn’t work for me, what are other ways of making me do the work that I want to do?

Marina:       So one way of planning that I found that kind of ties into that—I just did it with a wonderful, wonderful guy. He does movies. And he became very defiant in the face of these calendar maps. And I offered, like, “How about you create a story. You make films. How about we make a series and each chunk of your plan would be an episode. How would you go about it?” And he instantly kind of created kind of a character arc and a story, and how the character first meets rejection and then he doesn’t, you know, and then he overcomes a certain challenge and goes out of his comfort zone. And then, and so he created these visuals, and suddenly there was a plan, instead of, you know, a dry project plan with arrows and boxes and (indiscernible).

Michael:     Right.

Marina:      So that was one thing, and the energy in the room when we were working, changed so dramatically, we were both kind of, like, awestruck.

Michael:     So, I like that. I mean, there’s something about understanding the language your—that you work in. You know, for your client, the movie guy, he works in movie language, so how do you find a way of him re-imagining this process through a language he already understands?

Marina:      Exactly! And then we all process our information differently. So, another way to actually do stuff is to have, I call it built-in accountability, the ADHD folks usually know it by the body double thing. So, say you process information best in conversation. Say you’re a, you know, a verbal processor. Maybe you can schedule at least parts of your work to do it with somebody. Either converse with another person and work with them. Or, you know, I—there are all kinds of sessions, like “Shut up and plan,” “Shut and write,” “Shut up and do this.” When people kind of come together, very often virtually, for a set period of time, and they create this group where they actually do the tasks they’re set to do. Because the nature of these tasks is common to the entire group, and it creates kind of a vibe where it’s easy to accomplish what you set to accomplish.

Michael:     So, what you’re saying is that, look, if I’m trying to write something, I’ve got a report I need to write, kind of calling a gathering of other colleagues who might be also writing stuff, going, “Look, we’re going to sit here and we’re going to write together for an hour,” that can kind of build that accountability and that support for each other.

Marina:      Absolutely. And, you know, and you have to be careful how long these time blocks are. Because, for some, they can’t do more than half an hour and then the rest of the time is wasted. For some people, the other way around; they need the time to settle in. So you kind of have to listen to yourself and see what’s your natural rhythm, what’s your natural pattern of work.

Michael:     So, one of the things you mentioned, Marina, was that you’ve done work with the ADH, people with ADHD. And almost by accident you found yourself having them as a substantial amount of your client base. What have you learned from working with that more extreme version of lack of focus that is useful for a lot of the people listening in to us now, who don’t have that ADHD? What’s that kind of playing the extremities taught you?

Marina:     A couple things. Actually, a ton of things. So, I’m trying to distill the key. When it comes to systems, systems have to be either barely felt. So they’re just there for you and kind of do their work themselves. A good example of that would be, you know, an automatic payment system.

Michael:     Right.

Marina:      You create an invoice and it’s all automatic from there. Or, if the systems are not barely there, they have to be very engaging, because flexibility is a huge thing. Fun is a huge thing. And engagement kind of works on both of them. Accountability also plays into the whole engagement factor.

Michael:     I like that. I mean, I like what you’re saying, which is, you know, effectively you want your systems to either be working invisibly in the background so you don’t notice them, or kind of right up there in your face so you do notice them. It’s trying to make them sort of in the timid middle that you get into trouble.

Marina:      Exactly! Oh, that’s an amazing way to formulate that. Because, so, ADHD folks—and this is something I learned from Kirsten Milliken who wrote the Playdhd. Something in the chemical balance of dopamine is not the way it works with, you know, non-ADHD folks. Essentially, they need bigger stimulation when it comes to, you know, having fun, because it’s harder for them. And they’re more easily distracted. So we need to make it more engaging, way more engaging, for the ADHD folks than for the rest of us mortals. And in order for a system, something there is like years of built-in resistance in some cases, systems, you know, they need this factor because they kind of inherently have the cringe-factor in already.

Michael:     Right.

Marina:      So I guess that, yeah.

Michael:     Have you, through that work with ADHD—because I love that differentiation between the two different types of systems—what else has kind of become obvious in terms of working with ADHD, where you’ve gone, “Wow, that’s a really key piece of learning. I can take that back to my work with other people without ADHD to help them be more productive in the work that they do.” Is there anything else that bubbles up?

Marina:      Oh, absolutely. Ease of use. Reminders. Now, reminders, they’re good for everyone. I use reminders all the time. They’re absolutely crucial for people that have ADHD because they get distracted easily. And there’s one important piece about reminders that I learned very much in the process of my work. I definitely didn’t come to it myself. Reminders have to be placed so they don’t interrupt a natural flow. For instance, if I have a reminder to put my laundry in the dryer during my morning run? Guess what, it’s not going to happen.

Michael:     It’s useless, yeah.

Marina:      So when you put the reminders, put them when you’re less likely to ignore them. And also put them in sounds or other kinds of sensory stimulation that is hard to ignore.

Michael:     So give me an example of that. Because I know, you know, I have the calendar reminders and stuff, and they click up and I automatically click them shut without really paying attention to them. It’s a bit like pop-ups when you visit a website.

Marina:      Mm-hm.

Michael:     What are types of reminders that you found work particularly well for you or your clients?

Marina:      There are two types. One is the seriously, like, invasive annoying type, and then you’re motivated by—you know, and it’s snoozed until—you know there are these alarm clocks that won’t stop ringing at you before you solve the math problem. This is obviously an extreme case.

Michael:     Right. I hadn’t heard of that, but I like it.

Marina:      I would crash this alarm clock on the second day. But creating sounds that are kind of jarring, it works but it doesn’t work in the majority of cases. Reminders that are, again, fun, that are pleasant to hear, that you don’t want to shut down immediately—say, a melody that you like, but a loud melody that you like—they kind of engage you, just the way, in general, a system needs to engage you. That, I found, working. And also just placing the reminders, as I said before, at the appropriate times.

Michael:     Right. So, Marina, our work here is all but done. And I particularly found the valuable piece around systems being at either end of the spectrum, you know, invisible or loud, just not somewhere in the middle there. That’s a particularly good take-away for me.

Marina:      Thank you.

Michael:     Before we go, for people who are interested in your work and where you show up in the world, where can people find you on the web?

Marina:      Find me on my website. It’s Find me on Twitter. Handle is VisionFramework, one word, or on Facebook, the same thing. Vision Framework. I’ll be very happy to talk to anybody who listens to your show.

Michael:     Perfect. Marina, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Marina:      Thank you, Michael.

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