The Key To Creating Good Habits And Finding More Time

Mike Steib
Photo by Preston Schlebusch

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Today on the show, I talk to a public company CEO about his “If then” technique for creating good habits, his scheduling system called “Five Hours to Live” and networking tips that are pure gold. And, I love this, if you use an iPhone, grab it, because he gives a simple fast way for you to reality check just how much time you might have wasted in the last 24 hours.

But first, our quote of the day, from Thomas Edison, “Discontent is the first necessity of progress.” Our guest has been a senior leader at YouTube, McKinsey, and Google, and currently, he's the CEO of XO Group Inc, owner of the number one wedding planning brand, The Knot, and other leading brands to help couples through life's biggest moments. His new book is The Career Manifesto: Discover Your Calling and Create an Extraordinary Life. Our guest is Mike Steib. Mike, welcome to the show.

Steib: Kevin, how are you buddy?

Kruse: I am great. Thanks for joining us today.

Steib: All right. Thanks for having me. I'm psyched.

Kruse: Now, we're going to talk about your new book in a minute, but I've got a tradition where all of our guests get zinged with the first same couple of questions. The first one, I believe failures are stepping stones, there's no win or lose, it's win or learn. I'm selfish, I don't want to just learn from my own failures, I want to learn from your best failures. Share something with us. When did something not work out and what'd you learn from it?

Steib: That's a tough way to start, isn't it? I like that, I like that. Kevin, I think back, first of all, wisdom is achieved through experience and you really only get experience by doing something hard or something that you haven't done before. When you do things that are hard and things that you haven't done before, you're probably going to mess them up, so I could fill more than this podcast with times I've made mistakes or times I've learned hard lessons.

Two come to mind that are, I think, interesting and may be useful to your audience. The first one is I had a job early in my career where I didn't feel a connection to the world. I was not fulfilling the purpose of my life, and it made me unhappy, and it made me less good at my job. I remember we had a receptionist, a wonderful woman, Linda, who said to me once, “Mike, you look unhappy.” I said, “Linda, I'm kind of unhappy in the job. I don't think it's for me. But, but, but” I had a whole bunch of reasons why I was continuing to do it.

She said, “You know Mike, it's not a dress rehearsal. It's your life.” I had a new job in three months. Sometimes someone just has to give you a little bit of a push, but the lesson there for me was just how important it is to have a job connected to your purpose and to feel like the thing that you're doing really matters. It's why I wrote a book about that.

The second one, Kevin, is I went from that job to a startup that failed. So, I learned this important lesson about pursuing purpose and passion and then it went totally sideways. We were 18 months later, and we're right into the teeth of the dot-com boom and we were out of business. A couple of months later, I had a great job, and I was off to the next thing, and I took the lessons with me. Often I get a chance to talk to people about their careers and I get asked about career advice, and one that always comes up from smart, educated, successful people, is “How do you think about risk?”

What I learned in that second job is there is none. I mean, what do you mean by risk? Like, you're going to join a company that doesn't work out and then you end up sleeping on the street and selling drugs? I mean, worst case you're going to get some other wonderful job for educated, impactful people, and you'll continue to move up with the benefit of your experience.

There isn't really risk when you're constantly grinding your career forward and learning and challenging yourself. There just, as you indicated in the way that you asked the question, these are just lessons on which to build your impact.

Kruse: Yeah, so much I love about that, and it's a good reminder. I often say life is too short to be unhappy at work, because so many of our hours of life are at work, and you just give a good reminder that people seem to fear, “Well, if I go do what I really want to do, and it doesn't work out, what then?” It's not like we're all going to be living homeless and destitute. It means you go get another job. You try again. There's really very little downside.

Steib: That's right. The great risk in your life is that you settle. The great risk is that you compromise and you do something because it feels safe and secure, and you never get to live your fullest life. That's the risk.

Kruse: Yeah, that's the risk. The second question, Mike, that I always ask, is with all the experience you've had as a successful leader in business, what advice would you give to a first time manager who's just now getting ready to figure it all out? What would you tell her?

Steib: Being a manager for the first time or anytime is a sacred responsibility. You've been entrusted with the success of the team, and with the success of the individuals on that team. Not just in achieving the goals, but in supporting these people individually. Kevin, have you ever talked to somebody who's miserable at work? They probably don't like their boss.

It's a big responsibility and when I coach new managers, I remind them of four things. The first one is how important it is to have a great team. Recruiting, cultivating talent, interviewing really well, onboarding really well, coaching and feedback, and dealing with performance issues is the first job of a leader. Every single good thing I have ever been associated with at work has been done by some really talented person.

Getting really talented, well-coached people in your work is by far, by far the most important thing for a first-time manager. The second thing I always tell everyone is to communicate a ton. People don't know what you know. You have to remind everyone of the mission and values of your organization, or your team. You have to regularly update them on the strategy.

If you haven't talked about the strategy every week, people don't know the strategy. Remind them of a plan, and put in context the thing you just asked them to do. Use and keep emailing the team, keep calling all hands, keep talking to the team, let them know what you know, because you'll be very surprised how much of what you've said already people have not heard or processed, or observed.

The third is that you just have to be the expert on everything. You have to go deep, you have to study the topics, you have to know, when you get into the room with people who work for you, that you will be able to contribute to their success by knowing things that they may not have known. That just requires lots of extra hustle, and then finally, it's your job as a manager to remove obstacles, and you have to be good at it.

Whenever I hear a manager say, “Oh, my team didn't hit this goal or that” because of some obstacle because some other team didn't contribute, because someone else didn't help, to me, that is a manager who's missing my expectations. It's your job as a manager to clear the lane so your team can be successful, and to learn all of the skills and develop all of the capabilities to be someone who can work well with others, find where the choke points are in the paths of your team's success, and clear those choke points so that your team can succeed.

Kruse: Love it. I was chuckling to myself when you talk about if you haven't talked about strategy in the last week, nobody remembers the strategy, and the fact that we as leaders need to strive to over communicate, and it will still never be enough. Unless they're making fun of you in your message, you haven't said it enough, I don't think.

Steib: That's right. That's probably right.

Kruse: So Mike, again, your new book is The Career Manifesto: Discover Your Calling and Create an Extraordinary Life, and I'll be honest, when this came across my desk, you're guest probably number 260 on the podcast, I've read a lot of books and interviewed people with career-path type books, and I thought, “Oh, another one of these.” It's really remarkable. I mean, it's not what I was expecting. What is great is I guess I'm really speaking to the listeners, yes, you talk about discovering your purpose and creating that roadmap, but then you've got some other parts that I think are gold. They really could have been books on their own.

You talk about productivity, you talk about people, you talk about presence at the end which is so important. I mean, it's great on career, but it's career and so much more. I mean, it's to figure out that purpose and plan and fulfill it. With this short format show, I've got a lot of dog-eared pages, but I'm only going to pick three of them to ask you about.

Tell us about, you talk about instead of focusing on motivation we should be focusing on habits, and you have something you call the “If then” technique for developing good habits. What is that about?

Steib: Well, thanks for your compliments. I really appreciate it. As you know, when you write something down, you feel awfully exposed when you do it, so your opinion means a lot. I thank you for it.

My goal here was, I'd been asked by a number of people, “What's the one book I should read?” I have a list of my favorites, just like you do, but everyone is the one that you must read on one topic. I was hoping to write a book that you could hand to someone and say, “Hey, you're an early, or mid of your career and you're thinking about your career. Here are 12 or 13 chapters, and each one of them will be really dense and valuable to you. Here's one book.” That's what we were going for.

Kruse: That's great.

Steib: So to hear you say that, it means a lot to me. In terms of you asked about “If then” habits, I'd say bigger picture, to have a successful career, you have to have a lot of energy. You have to be resilient, and you're going to have to make lots and lots of good decisions. This ranges from do you sleep enough? Do you exercise? Do you eat right? Are you someone who shows up on time for meetings? Do you take the time to be a good listener? All of these things are crucial habits in a successful professional's life.

I've spent a lot of time studying the science of how habits are created, and Daniel Kahneman is the preeminent scientist on this. Everything he's written is great. Paul Duhaig's work on this is really great. Roy Baumeister, a lot of it, I think people are questioning some of the science behind it, but it's all common sense. It's all stuff about habits are … You lock in good habits to be successful.

One of the things we explore in the book is how do you go about that? I'll give you an example of if I haven't been going to the gym, I haven't been exercising, I want to get up in the morning and exercise but I haven't. The alarm goes off, I tell myself, “Oh, I'll snooze for five minutes,” I do that four times, and I don't go to the gym. I feel terrible about myself, but tomorrow's a new day, we'll do it tomorrow.

I want to change that equation a little bit. Here's an “If then” instead. Instead of if the alarm goes off, I'll think about going to the gym, I'll take the phone and set the alarm, and I'll put it front of the door rather than next to the bed. I'll put it in a pair of sneakers that I'm going to wear to the gym, along with my gym clothes, my headphones, and my keys.

When my alarm goes off, if the alarm goes off, then I have to get out of bed. I have to go to the front door, I have to pick it up. Now I'm standing at the front door with my gym clothes, my sneakers, my phone, and my keys, and my headphones. It is going to be harder for me to turn around and get back in bed than it is for me to turn around and go to the gym.

There are a bunch of apps that we waste our time with. I put them in a folder that has a particular title on it, that when I go to that folder, it reminds me that there are other things that I'd rather be doing. So the if is like, if you feel an urge to waste five minutes on Instagram, then, in this case, I have a trigger. I'm being reminded that there's something else that I'm supposed to be investing my time in.

In the folder next to it has a name that reminds me, “These are the things that you're supposed to be doing right now.” It's just a little nudge to redirect my attention until that things become the habit.

Kruse: I love that, and I actually put this specific tactic into play as soon as I read it. One of the things I've done with an “If then” is I have a chocolate peanut butter protein bar, vegan protein bar that actually tastes really good. Finally found a vegan protein bar that's really good, and-

Steib: You must be fun at parties.

Kruse: I leave the “If thens” home at the parties. So now, if I've got a sweet tooth, if I'm looking for a cookie, if I'm walking to the kitchen thinking, “Junk food, sweet,” I grab that protein bar, and in my mind, it's sort of like, “Well, I'll eat that protein bar, it's pretty sweet. If I want something else after that, okay,” but I never do. It's enough. I don't have a good rule for the pretzels or chips yet.

Steib: There you go.

Kruse: If I want a potato chip I need to do this, but I'll work on that one.

Steib: What I always try to do is, for things that I want to do, I try to remove a step. For things I don't want to do, I try to add a step. If you don't want to go home and watch cable television tonight, add a step by unplugging the cable box in the morning. Then there's just one more thing you have to do, right? Like, “Okay, I want to watch cable TV, I have to plug the cable box in, give it a couple minutes to load and then I'll watch it” but just that one addition of a step, you think about it, you're like, “Ugh, forget it. I'll read a book.”

Kruse: Often just you need that moment to pause to catch yourself.

Steib: Exactly.

Kruse: Before you do the bad habit.

Steib: Remind yourself the do things that you want to be achieving.

Kruse: That's right. You have a chapter, you talk about zero-basing your calendar when you start to schedule. Your chapter says “Five more hours to live.” That was a pretty powerful chapter, so tell us, what do you mean by that, five more hours to live?

Steib: As you said when we began, your time is your most valuable resource. When I talk to folks about their careers or their passions, anything in life, and they tell me why they haven't been doing it, the reason is always time. There just hasn't been time to do it. I've tried to deconstruct the situation, and I look at how I spend time and how others spend time, and there are things that you must do.

You must sleep eight hours, work out, bathe. If you're ambitious, you're probably working about 60 hours a week. You divide all that over a seven day week, and 19 of the 24 hours are spoken for. You've got five hours left that haven't been allocated yet.

Then everyone says, “Well Mike, you may have five hours. I don't have five hours. I haven't seen these five free hours” and I was asking them to show me their phone. You go in their phone, we go to settings, we go to battery life, and under battery life you can push the little clock button and it shows you how many hours this week you've spent with each of your apps.

To have this discussion someone where I was able to point to their phone and say, “There are your five hours. It's on Instagram, it's on Facebook, it's in autoplay YouTube video, the unending loop of watching YouTube videos.” It's all of these things, and for people for whom it's not apps, I think the average American watches four hours and 25 minutes of television a day.

Those things add up to occupy the five hours that we haven't spoken for. They do that because we don't proactively schedule our time. We don't say, “Today this is how I'm going to spend every hour of my day.” As a result, you get home from work, and you think, “There's a lot I'd like to do. I'd love to read more books, I'd love to exercise tonight. I'd love to invest in my personal career plan, I'd love to call my parents,” whatever it is.

But then you say, “Well, I'll just sit down for a few minutes and relax, 'cause I've earned it, I'll watch a little TV.” Then the next thing you know Netflix is saying to you, “Hey, are you still there?” You go, “Oh, my God, I've been here so long that even Netflix is worried about me.”

To instead say, as I try to do, “Okay, when I get home tonight, I'm going to have two hours with my kids, fully focused on my kids. We're going to dinner and bath, we're going to play this game and we're going to go to bed. I'm not going to have my iPhone out, I'm not going to be distracted. After that, I'm going to spend two and a half hours working, these are things that I'm going to be doing. I'm going to read for 30 minutes, I'm going to get in bed at this time, tomorrow morning I'm going to get up refreshed and start the day with A, B, and C.”

When you zero-base your calendar and you populate with the things that you want to make sure get done, you then take control of your time. You take control of what's going to happen next in your life. When you combine that control of your calendar, that dedicated approach, disciplined approach to your calendar, with good habits, the good habits allow you to honor those things that you put in the calendar.

If every night at 9:45 you get in bed with a book and read for 30 minutes, then after a couple of weeks, that is what you do at 9:45. It's no longer a pipe dream that you're going to be someone who reads 20-30 pages a day, 'cause it's just going to be a part of your habit and calendar structure in your life.

Kruse: So much good stuff in there. I often am reminding the LEADx audience that we really can't manage time. We have the same 1440 minutes a day, but we can manage our focus and our energy, which you write about, and that you're suggesting. So, things like sleep and working out, that is what's helping us to maintain peak levels of energy, and focus.

Just as you say, I always tell people schedule, don't list. I'm anti-to-do list, and when you think through your hours like this, then no, you can't do everything. We don't have unlimited time, but we can be present, mindful, and enjoy what we're doing.

Instead of feeling, “I'm with my kids, but I'm stressed out because I think I've got more work to do in the office, and if I stay late in the office I'm feeling guilty because I really think I should be home with the kids.” It's like this guilt stress yo-yo. So, by being intentional about that calendar, we can know I'm exactly where I should be, right now. I shouldn't be in the office anymore. I already did the 60 hours this week, and I thought it was great that you were realistic about that.

Because I hear other people do similar exercises, and they're like, “So let's say you work 40 hours a week.” I'm thinking, “How many people only work 40 hours a week?”

Steib: Not people who listen to your podcast.

Kruse: That's right. Not our listeners. So, it's a very realistic way to think about it, and then to figure out how to schedule the day. Moving into another section of your book, you write a lot of great stuff about relationships. Networking, relationships, social capital, and it's practical. It's tactical.

Look, I've taught some of this, I've written some of this, and I was folding over the pages like, “Oh yeah, this is a good one.” Give us some general tips around networking, and I want to make sure you also share, it sounds simple, but it's very good, how do you end a conversation with someone that you've just met, someone who you've just met an event?

Steib: First I'd say on networking, the way people do it, or the way some people do it or think about it is a real turnoff. You know that feeling when you go to some conference and someone looks at you, and then they look down at your name badge to see where you work, and then they look over your shoulder to see if there's anybody with a better name badge, and they look back at you?

I don't know. Kevin, I don't want to live in that world. The world I want to live in is one where I get to know people, and the ones that I like seem to like me too. I try to find ways to help them, and you fall into meaningful, long-lasting relationships that way.

But at the top of the funnel, there are lots and lots of people you've got to connect with before you get a sense of what that is. Some of your listeners are just these wonderful extroverts who can walk into a room and it lights up, and they're immediately friends with everybody, and then some of your listeners are like me, and maybe more naturally introverted and would rather eat the lanyard and name tag that they give you at a conference than go to it, and find that it's really intimidating to go up to folks.

In The Career Manifesto I just walk through like, if you're like me, this is what I've found is helpful. How to connect from a stranger, from the simple stuff like look in someone's eyes, shake their hand, and say hello, and how to remember names. This is a mental handicap for me, and it's not because I don't find you interesting. It's just that we just met and the name went right over my head.

All the way through to then, okay, we've met, we've made a connection, I know how we're going to follow-up, so how does this thing end? This awkward ritual, seeing people sort of meet each other, and then sort of end the conversation. I'll tell you the wrong way to do it is I've seen people, they end conversations by finishing their drink and then they say they need to go to the bar. You always have to work this person out.

The good strategy is just to say, “Kevin, I'm really glad I got to meet you. Thanks for your card, or whatever, I hope I get a chance to follow-up with you again, and the next time I see you, it's going to be great.” You just say goodbye. “Kevin, this was great. Thank you so much. I hope I get to see you again.” I shake your hand, I look in your eyes, and leave.

Now, you and I both have this possible longer term connection. Now of course, if we're really having a good time and we're hitting it off, we're allowed to keep talking, but a lot of people find themselves in situations where the expectation is, I don't know, shorter, quicker interactions.

And to take leadership in the conversation by being the person who initiates it, and makes it comfortable for both or all parties, and then being the person who takes leadership in bringing the conversation to a socially comfortable close, so everyone can go to the next thing, is great.

In between, what I always find happens is there are like five or six other sad introverts around the periphery who wish somebody was talking to them. What I ask everyone is, let them in. If somebody sidles up to your conversation a little bit, just say, “Oh hello, I'm Mike, this is my new friend Kevin. We were just talking about this fantastic navy blue book that Kevin's been reading. What's your name?” You welcome them into the conversation and you keep going.

I often find that the way these things happen and the way that I end up out of the conversation is three or four people end up in this conversation, and then when I leave, it all keeps going, and it's this nice, I don't know, you've sort of planted a seed that grows for other people.

You're not doing this to get something for yourself. You're doing it because it's nice to connect with other human beings, and the more you get to know them, the more you can have impact in their career and yours, and in a positive way later on.

Kruse: I'm glad you ended on that point, Mike, because I think when you're doing it the right way, then whether you're walking up to someone to initiate the conversation, or excusing yourself out, it's going to come from a great place. It's not the, “I'm looking over your shoulder and going to somebody else.” They can tell that you care, and that it's a genuine relationship.

Steib: I have to say, Kevin, I did an experiment. For me, when I realized I'm bad with names, I go, I read a couple books on how to remember names, I practice it. The sort of self-improvement, personal development regiment that I need to be a better leader and a better person. One of them is I don't know about you, but eye contact, especially with strangers, it's a little bit uncomfortable. A lot of people struggle with it.

I did some reading on this, and I practiced eye contact on the New York City subways for two weeks. I would get on the 6 train, and stand on the 6 train, I wouldn't be playing with my phone, and I would just look around the subway a little bit, and then someone will look up on their phone by accident.

And then you make eye contact, and I would do this crazy thing. I would smile at this person. I'd smile at a stranger. Do you know what every single one of them did? Every single one of them smiled back.

Kruse: Wow.

Steib: Every one. Then, I would look down at my phone, because I did my personal development thing on my commute for the morning, and I'd start playing with my phone, and I'd look back up, and the person would still be looking at smiling. People want to have a connection with other people. The way that we all half avoid it and make it awkward is what makes it not work. If you walk into the office every day and the same security guard you always see every day, and you stop and say, “My name is this. What is your name?” Or, “Good morning Sam,” or, “How are you doing?”

People are happy to have that happen. If you have listeners in the middle of the country, they're like, “What are you talking about? We do that here all the time,” maybe talking to the New Yorkers, but it is a, the world's a nicer place, when you smile at people, when you get to know them a little bit, and when you're facilitating these human connections. That's what it's all about.

Kruse: I like to challenge our listeners to get a little bit better every day. I always say, don't worry about big transformation. Just get 1% better every day, and by the end of the year, that's a big change, right? So, I'm going to challenge our listeners on two things. One, I just love how you talked about making eye contact and smiling at strangers. I want everybody to do that experiment today. In the next 24 hours.

Then, the other is, and I'm interested to do it on my own phone when we're done with this interview, I want to go in and check my battery usage and how much time I've been spending with the various apps. That's a great way to get a reality check on our time.

Steib: Yeah. Well, I'll give 'em one more challenge which is to go to Amazon and write me a review because the Amazon algorithm loves that shit.

Kruse: Hey, that's the truth. Truth to that. I always tell authors, the number one … They think it's like book tours, I'm like, “Number one thing is Amazon reviews. Those are gold. Those are gold.”

Steib: If anybody out there likes the book, give us a little love.

Kruse: Mike, what's the best way for our listeners to find out about your work and your new book?

Steib: You can go to if you wanted to read an excerpt from the book, and you can see some of the press around the book and all that fun stuff. A lot of the advanced praise and some of the reviews. You're welcome to go there.

If you want to follow my daily thoughts on leadership and complaints about government, you can do that at Twitter. My handle is @MSteib. I'm always looking to make friends there, and if you want to get in touch with me, there's a form on the website, and you can get in touch. Especially for folks who've read the book and thought about their lives a little bit, I'm always available for advice.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at