Nic de Castro and Nathan Pettijohn

Zen and the Art of Admin Tasks: Nic de Castro and Nathan Pettijohn

Nic de Castro and Nathan Pettijohn

Have you ever felt you were wasting so much of your life in your email? Like you just want to escape your inbox because it gets so tiring dealing with scheduling and back and forth messages? Well, that’s what this episode is all about.

Nathan Pettijohn and Nic De Castro, the co-authors of Zen and the Art of Admin Tasks, are going to be your guides to help you outsource your administrative work to an administrative assistant so that you can focus on driving value in your personal and professional life.

By the end of this episode, you will find yourself with a system to save you dozens of hours of white space time per week that you previously did not have. If you want to fill your life with more productive, valuable activities, like ideation and deep thinking and creative play, this episode is for you.

 Nic De Castro: I had accepted a new job back in March—a fairly good-sized company, about a hundred employees. I worked in a sales role, so I was being onboarded onto a bunch of accounts that were existing and being introduced to a bunch of relationships that I’ve been taking over from somebody who is on their way out. Just the usual stuff, along with internal meetings and intros, all of that.

I do take a lot of my influences from Tim Ferris in The 4-Hour Workweek that I had read back in 2010, 2011. It’s influenced a lot of the ideas here.

“I wanted to automate a lot of that administrative work.”

I mean, it’s work that has to happen. It’s not where I’m creating value for this new organization. Of course, I’ve got to attend meetings, I’ve got to reply to emails and introductions and schedule meetings. But me personally doing that work isn’t what they’re paying me to do. They’re paying me to go in and meet and have strategic conversations and find opportunities to work together and add value to our partners.

Quickly, I went in and started to develop this framework where I went and put a job rec up on Upwork, interviewed an administrative assistant, and started to create a bunch of rules on how to process my inbox and work like me.

It went from me basically trying to keep up with a bunch of the exact same literally copy-pasted introductions to existing clients and partners, to me being able to have strategic conversations, more time to focus on working with prospective customers that would drive a lot of value—who are now currently three months, four months in, driving millions of dollars of revenue for my company.

I truly think that if I had maintained trying to manage all of those things myself, I would be much further behind where I am in the business than I am today.

The CEO has told me it was one of the fastest people to significant revenue he’s ever seen, and I don’t take credit from a personal perspective. I think it’s a testament to the system.

Writing Zen and the Art of Admin Tasks

Charlie Hoehn: You freed yourself from the confines of what pretty much everyone else does, right?

Nic De Castro: Correct, correct. I consider all this stuff hygiene. It has to happen, but no hygiene techniques lead to breakthroughs.

Charlie Hoehn: Exactly. What about you Nate? Where were you?

Nathan Pettijohn: Well, so as Nic said, this all came together pretty quickly just over the last couple months. The first time we met was over the phone, and we did a screen share. I have my own little company, and we do social media strategy and content strategy for digital, and I work with Strike Social, which is where Nic works.

Anyway, I wanted to show him some of the tools that I was using for LinkedIn messages and social media and how I’ve automated things on my end, so that was our first conversation.

Whenever he came out to LA, we got together here in Hermosa Beach. He showed me this rule system he had written out for his emails, because I’m running this small company. I was managing all my own emails and scheduling and setting up ads and responding to tweets and all these small things that, similarly, is not driving the revenue or success of my company—just keeping the wheels on.

“He handed me these rules, which I was able to copy and paste and then adjust a little bit for my own purposes.”

Within a week or two, it was like, “Hey, we need to put this out as a book so that other people can copy and paste this—entrepreneurs, or small business owners, or sales people could use this same method.”

In just the last few months of having it on, I’ve gone to a couple countries, written this book, written several new articles for my Forbes column, and business is growing. It’s sustaining through all of that.

So it’s not even when I leave town that nothing stops. It’s like, let’s keep everything automated. In the process of delegating it in itself, you have to write out these rules and really think clearly, “Is this necessary? Can I get rid of this or automate it or delegate it?” Just the process itself is really helpful.

Settling into Admin Delegation

Charlie Hoehn: Take me back to that week or two. What was an aha moment, or what were some of the things that happened during that time that made you say, “We have to make this into a book”?

Nathan Pettijohn: I was excited about it when Nic first showed me the rules, but I’d had it in place for a few days, and it’s scary at first. Like I mentioned, I do a lot of social media stuff, so you get used to staring at a screen all day, or monitoring the likes come in, and whatever.

At a certain point, you’re used to responding to your own emails quickly. It’s coming from you, and people think you’re being prompt and paying attention.

The first few days, you’ve got to teach the admin, and there’s a learning curve. You’ve got to let your emails pile up a little bit so that they can respond to them.

My admin’s in a different time zone, so there were headaches at first to say, “Oh, I want to make sure that this is happening, or that is happening.”

“The first few days were a little stressful.”

We put our rules each in a Google Doc that’s editable, and every time that there’s a new rule that pops up, you say, “Hey, add this to the rules.”

It’s not really about stepping in and saying, “No, do it this way.” It’s really just like, “Next time, let’s do it this way,” and continually refining it.

The aha moment was just the amount of time I had. Instead of doing all these other things, we knocked out a book and all these other projects.

Who Needs This Zen

Charlie Hoehn: A lot of people I’d imagine are familiar with the concepts that you’re talking about. But who is your book really for?

Nic De Castro: Yeah. We obviously do want a tip a cap. It’s definitely an inspiration, where I’ve learned a lot of these things and the frameworks for sure.

I’d say our book’s for, as Nate mentioned earlier, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, people working at other people’s companies, sales people, small business people, artists, whoever.

If you find yourself managing your own inbox and spending time doing administrative, non-real value creation work, I think that’s who this is for.

Charlie Hoehn: You’re definitely preaching to me. I’m very interested in your book, okay.

Nic De Castro: Yeah. I think that’s what it really comes down to, right? If you were to sit and look at yourself and take like, “Okay, I’m going to observe myself this morning, tomorrow morning and how I spend my time from when I show up to the office to lunch.”

How much of that work that you’re doing is living in your inbox? How many of those emails are truly value creating, versus administrative hygiene? I think, if you’re honest with yourself, most people spend a lot of their time doing hygiene.

The interesting thing about it is living in your inbox and doing a lot of hygiene tasks, administrative tasks, setting up a meeting—there’s three or four emails that go back and forth in order to schedule a meeting.

We all know it, or the standard, “Hey, nice to meet you John. When do you want to chat?” Or “This is what we do.”

The perverse thing about it is when you’re replying to those emails, or sending those scheduling emails, or doing these basic administrative tasks—not saying they don’t need to be done, but doing them doesn’t create value. It makes you feel like you’re getting work done when you’re really not.

It’s All About the Rules

Charlie Hoehn: I’m all on board for this. I’ll tell you though, in my experience, I’ve tested this and I don’t think I did it right. I hired a VA, or an admin and they just didn’t do a very good job. They weren’t proactive. They were more sorting stuff rather than being proactive and responding. How do we choose our admin? How do we make a good hire?

Nathan Pettijohn: Well, I mean, before that, 90% of it’s not who you hire. It’s going to be the about the rules.

I mean, that’s the problem everybody has, right? There’s a lot of people that’ll read The 4 Hour Workweek or like some of these ideas and think they’re clever, but it’s like, “All right, where do I start? Am I going to hire someone and just start sending them things off the cuff?”

When Nic and I met and I was showing him, I don’t schedule my own Instagrams, I don’t respond to DMs there, I don’t send my own DMs from Twitter, or LinkedIn.

I have all that automated already, for the same reason that I don’t want to sit here and watch the likes roll in all day.

On the other hand, Nic and I are both very ambitious people that like being creative. It’s not like we’re having this phone call from a golf course. We’re still getting work done each day. It’s just the kind of work that we’re focused on is not something that’s repeatable, or something that we can delegate.

I think that the problem a lot of people have is they’ll want to utilize some of these processes, but they don’t have the rule system.

“Put really specific rules in place and say, “If this, then that.””

If someone reaches out about this, respond with this. We share the same admin. She responds as Nate or as Nic and says the exact same phrasing that we would say.

Why does it matter if it’s coming from us or not? Things are still moving forward, and that’s the whole point.

Nic De Castro: To add to that, I think when people maybe first delve into this delegation of their inbox, which is terrifying to a lot of people, the expectation that that person will be you in every way. That’s an unrealistic measure.

Part of the rules is, “Hey, certain people are VIPs.”

I get a text immediately when my CEO emails me. I know the moment it comes in my inbox. It’s left there and it’s not responded to. But there are about seventy emails that come to my inbox that are processed based on my rules that our admin can take care of or process in the correct manner, that I didn’t see.

I have four emails in my inbox, and they’re all things that I need to do. I call it thought work, or strategic input, where I bring the value to the business.

Don’t expect your admin to be out there being you from a strategic perspective, or from a truly value-driving perspective. They’re just handling all blocking and tackling all the other stuff that has to happen so that you can take those four emails a day that are really where you need to put your time and effort.

I experienced this too first time I tried to outsource in 2011. I read The 4 Hour Workweek, which is a fantastic book, super pumped on it, tried outsourced to India using some of those services, and I’ve tried to outsource in the Philippines in the past as well.

“Regardless of the outsourcing company’s reputation, it really comes down to the individual.”

Of course, the person that you end up selecting is important, and you can do some quick tests with time tasks where you can get an idea of how they operate.

More importantly, I think some people get into, “Okay, I’m interested in doing the admin idea,” but they don’t really spend the time up front to put processes in place.

The interesting thing about process is that it really makes you put the way you work and the way you think on a daily basis under a microscope. A process that might take you sixty seconds to do could take you a couple minutes, at least, to put into a process.

Now, with newer stuff, we like to use Loom, which is screen sharing. Screen sharing is great. It makes things seamless, videos, sight, sound, emotion. It’s a lot easier than writing out processes like I used to do in 2011.

Still, before you press record, need to have a very consistent flow, and it really requires you to examine the way you work and do things. A lot of times, you find inefficiencies before you even end up creating that process.

Thinking It Through

Charlie Hoehn: Nic, how long did that take to really get to a point where you felt confident you’d nailed your process?

Nic De Castro: Yeah, great question. A couple parts to that answer actually. Again, this is lending or borrowing from The 4 Hour Workweek, but let your inbox build up a little bit, and then process it. Going through processing your inbox, you’ll understand, “Okay, I basically receive five, seven types of emails. When I see this, I take this action with it, and why do I do that?”

It’s really thinking through how you process your inbox.

Now you have to be comfortable with the idea that there will be small mistakes made, right? I went through a chunk of this. It probably took me a couple hours, because I’ve done this before, so it wasn’t a completely new idea to me. Going back through and doing this at my new job probably took me an hour, two hours to go through and do this exercise.

“I’ll let my inbox build to 100 emails, or 50 emails, then go through and create rules.”

I designated VIPs, gave access to some of my own accounts, etc. It’s an ever-growing process. Today I added two new processes to my rules, because roles are ever-changing and growing. Now Nate got to benefit from my work, because I had put that stuff onto Google Docs.

Actually when he asked me if he could have access to my rules I said, “Sure. Send an email to me and my admin will reply to you and give you all the context you need in a cover, and she’ll attach the documents.”

I didn’t even ever personally give Nate access to these documents, or give him any of the framework. My admin did.

It’s the proof point.

Nathan Pettijohn: Yeah, neither one of us scheduled today’s podcast. Not in my calendar.

Tools of the Trade

Charlie Hoehn: Tell me what type of tools beyond Google Docs did you use? I know that’s a tactical question and maybe it’s not very significant to some, but I think a lot of people want to know that they’re using the right thing on the first time.

Nic De Castro: That’s a great question, and actually it’s incredibly relevant, because this is really a tactical guide. This is not theory. I think The 4-Hour Workweek does a good job at theory and got me personally to buy-in. Tim at that time had put tactics in place, but technology has progressed, so many new apps have come out, etc.

We really just wanted to focus on the tactical side of it. The services or the apps that we use are incredibly relevant.

Most startups those people who are doing their own thing are using the G-suite, right? Gmail and Google Docs, etc., definitely a big piece of it. Not essential, but it’s what we use. We use some recording.

For us, we use an artificial intelligence assistant, which sounds funny, because we have an admin as well. All of our calls, we have an AI assistant called EVA. It’s created by a company called Voicera. A friend of mine is actually the CMO over there.

For all of the calls and meetings I have, I add EVA, who is the AI, into the call. She’ll listen to the conversation and record it. That’s one of those things that I can go back and reference for all the meetings that I have, because meetings are non-stop as someone who’s a client-facing business development person.

Nate actually introduced Loom to me.

Loom is a screen sharing, screen recording, really simple to use software. It’s free. Great way to do process. I was writing out all my processes in Google Docs, and taking screenshots and Loom is by far a better way to do it. Nate brought that to the table. Obviously, depending on the company, there’s a CRM. We use SalesForce, so that’s part of the thing that I have to do.

Nathan Pettijohn: It’s how they plug together. We use Uber Conference for conference calls, we use EVA to record the calls, we use Todoist to track tasks and delegate tasks.

Nic De Castro: Todoist is a real linchpin. Great point. I can’t believe I forgot that. Todoist is really the command center between ourselves and our admins, so it’s where we go in and assign tasks to our admins, and it’s where admin comes and assigns tasks to us for things that we need to handle.

I love it. I’ve been a productivity nerd for years, so I was someone who used software like OmniFocus, which is literally the most comprehensive personal database you could ever build for doing things, essentially. We’ve used things like Asana and a whole suite of project management or to-do lists. I love Todoist.

One of the main things is really simple to use, the interface is great, but also voice notes, something that I know I use a ton of and I think Nate does as well.

In sales, business development, I take a lot of meetings. The thing is taking notes and follow-up and all that stuff has to happen.

“Again, is it really worth my time?”

It’s one of those things that a lot of people will put off, like, “Oh, I’ve got to go over write an email, follow-up or take notes and share with people…” It definitely needs to happen.

However, the process that I put in place is, when I walk out of a meeting, I hop on to notes and I leave a voice note for my admin. She has a pre-formatted Google Doc that she’ll put this in.

I basically summarize all the different points that I want from that meeting. I leave next steps, which a lot of times she’ll assign me tasks like, “Hey Nic, you need to follow up with this proposal for that client.”

She’ll attach the EVA voice recording of that meeting to that document as well.

Voice notes is amazing. You capture all your thoughts, they dictate them down, and it’s done. Again, the hygiene work and stuff that needs to be done is being done, but it’s not by me.

“It’s me walking around after a meeting, and everything’s just happening.”

Nathan Pettijohn: Yeah. We’ll use that too for drafting emails, like “Draft an email to so-and-so that says X, Y, and Z.” Then later on when you’re processing your emails, you go through on all these drafts and review and hit send.

It’s a just a smarter way. My first job in Los Angeles was as a development assistant for a producer named Robert Lawrence. I would send emails that he would dictate, and it would say, “Dictated and read by Robert Lawrence,” or “Dictated but not read.” That’s a very old style, impersonal way to approach this. Whereas, we’re dictating and it’s being sent by us.

Half of my job when I did that was all these admin tasks and scheduling and stuff that had nothing to do with my film degree, whereas the other half of the stuff was really interesting and creative.

Anyone Can Do It

Nathan Pettijohn: The admin stuff, there’s no reason it has to be you specifically, or that you need someone in-person. You can document these, and with the right tools in place, with the right workflow, you can be highly effective.

Before meetings, I’ll look at someone on CrystalKnows and Detective to see their company info.

The bottom line is that there’s a lot of tools out there. Sometimes it’s too many tools, sometimes it’s the wrong tool, or you can use the right tool in the wrong way.

I got an email earlier from somebody that was like, “Yeah, just book a time with me. Click this link, then I can click in there and find a time that works for me and book it that way.” But I see that, and I just think, “Well, this person’s time is not valuable if anyone can just grab the link from their email signature and book a time with them.” They’re at the mercy of whoever’s scheduling for them.

Nathan Pettijohn: I email a lot of different CEOs that they’re slow at responding, or they send the calendar invite wrong, or there’s just a million different things. Why are they doing that themselves? It doesn’t usually make sense.

There’s a lot of people that would be prototypical customer for this, and you just copy and paste it. Based on the amount of hours you need, We pay our admin 500 or 600 bucks a month each, and that’s eight hours a week at $16 dollars an hour.

You might need $200 worth of work a month. Even if you have a small company and all they’re processing are invoices and updating your SalesForce, that’s still hugely valuable, and you should still do it.

Obviously, I would love if people can download this, copy and paste it, and be off and running with at least a few of the rules, like scheduling or follow-ups.

I put some specific ones in. I’m a talent manager, and I have to book clients to speak at events, or go on a podcast or whatever. So there was already a process in place. First it goes to the assistant, she confirms a time, then it goes to the publicist, they confirm with the interviewer, the dial-in info gets sent with the background info, and that goes to the calendar.

“There’s already a process. Why should I be the one clicking send?”

Whatever your business is, if it’s like you have six types of clients and you have a template response for each one, just type those up and then send it off to the admin.

Whatever business you’re in, I’m sure there’s a way to document and delegate.

For ours, it’s digital, sales, stuff like that, so some of our tools like Loom might be more relevant, because we’re recording stuff on a computer all the time. In any case, there’s a way to type up the processes and then really refine what you’re doing each day.

Practical, Tactical

Charlie Hoehn: This is something I haven’t really seen in this much depth in any book. I think anybody who’s struggled to do this in the past, or has wanted to do this in the past, but the processing has been the thing that stopped them, this is the book for them.

Nic De Castro: Yeah, that was the intention here. It’s not theory so much. It’s really just ground-level tactics. I’ve worked on automation beyond this before as well. It’s funny. I’ve done a lot of sales consulting over the years, and no matter what, every single company, every business owner thinks that their product or service offering is different. You can never add sales automation to it.

I’ve worked with companies in the consumer app space, a lot of advertising and marketing clients. Even my dad’s business, it’s in general contracting for residences. Each time they said, “Oh, you could never do inside sales automation for my company, my product, my service. Not this industry. It wouldn’t work.”

“Lo and behold, it worked for all those companies.”

I think the same goes for people’s inboxes. Everyone’s very convinced that no one can ever handle their inbox.

Fortune 50 CEOs rarely handle their own inboxes. These guys have figured out the fact that admins are extremely powerful, and they leverage them in a lot of the ways that we’re talking about.

Maybe not using the different technologies and stuff, but your inbox is not special. The way you process an inbox is not special. Everyone’s inbox is processed. When you log in and you go into your email, what you’re doing is processing.

The difference is you’re not paying attention to why you’re doing what you’re doing; you’re just doing it.

What we’re suggesting is that you pay attention to what you’re doing when you’re in your inbox and why you’re doing it, and then document it and then give it to somebody else.

Save yourself time. Focus on the value-driving activities that you can only do.

Where Else Can You Spend Your Time?

Charlie Hoehn: Do you have a particular favorite success story?

Nathan Pettijohn: I would say just in general, the average person spends in America four hours a day looking at their emails. I don’t know how much they spend looking at their phone or at Instagram, but the more you’re just staring at these screens that aren’t driving any value to your life, I don’t see how you’re being effective.

“Twenty hours a week: what else could you be doing with that?”

There’s other processes and things to delegate and automate, improve your workflows. First, you’ve got to start with your email and your calendar.

Giving up your email is key, and so that’s why we started with this. This is step one. No matter how many of the rules you put in place, or how many of the tools, if you gain back one hour a day, I think that’s huge.

Nic De Castro: I was also talking with my other friend who’s got a search engine marketing company out of Austin that’s growing and he was telling me how busy he was and stressed out and how much he’s working. I started to ask him what kind of work, like what was the work he was doing.

He was very reticent to give up his inbox and was very reticent to do it especially to somebody who’s not in person.

He actually came on the Cuba trip with Nate and myself. Nate and I were very relaxed, and some of our other entrepreneurial friends were a little less so, and they were searching for internet and frantically emailing when they got internet while Nate and I smoked cigars.

When he started to delve into the work that was taking a majority of his time up and making him really stressed, I told him, “Look you’re doing a lot of work that you can easily delegate this stuff. This is all process work. It’s not really knowledge work. It’s just process work.”

He finally took my advice and actually Nate, myself and him all share the same admin. This has only been weeks. This isn’t months, this is weeks. Onboarded the admin, delegated a lot of the stuff that he was working on that was keeping him with 16-hour days, landed huge new clients, bought a new apartment in Austin, and is traveling quite a bit more.

It really is not just about productivity and focusing on the things that are highly effective in your work life, but it also gets you to the point where you can start enjoying your personal life a lot more too. It’s really about just being effective with your time personally and professionally.

One Challenge with a Big Payoff

Charlie Hoehn: Two more questions you guys. The first is how can our listeners connect with you, follow you? And what are the scenarios actually in which you would like listeners to potentially reach out or follow you?

Nic De Castro: This is the funny thing. I work as a professional and social media world and social advertising world, I actually don’t participate in social much.

It’s how I make my living, but I don’t really do it. Nate is a little bit different.

I have LinkedIn. Connecting with me, again, if it meets my requirements that my admin knows to notify me about, then that’s great. I’ll see it and will most likely connect.

Buying the book, that’s great. It’s a great way to connect with us. It’s a way to get the full conversation that we’ve had here but written down and actionable. I think it’s a value-driving thing.

Nathan Pettijohn: I’m @nrpettijohn. I have social media and you can message me there, but I won’t necessarily be the one responding. I’ve cut all my accounts and they’re all automated or have bots on them. Just so many hours in the day and staring at your own social media isn’t necessarily driving a whole lot of value for you, but they do get scrubbed and read as well on my end. In certain cases, it would be forwarded to me.

Charlie Hoehn: The final question is can you give our listeners a challenge, something they can do this week from your book that will make a positive impact?

Nic De Castro: Okay, so one, buy the book. I think it’s 99 cents and $4. That would be step one.

I think in order to really take the leap here, why don’t you just process your inbox? Set aside thirty minutes to an hour, let your inbox build up to 25, 50 emails, and then write down why you’re doing what you’re doing with each email that you have there.

That’s the biggest piece of work really. Once you process that and start to say, “Okay, look. I basically receive these many types of emails. It’s an introduction email, it’s a scheduling email, an automated email from SalesForce, or something else, a marketing email that I don’t even really need to see.”

“Just become aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing when you’re in your inbox.”

Start to record that. Once you realize that this work is not this thing that only you could do, I think that’s the aha moment that, “Oh, okay. Yeah, I can pass this off. Every time I get an email regarding this, I do the same thing and someone else could do that for me.”

Nathan Pettijohn: I would say, how many hours a day are you doing those tasks? Because if $500 a month is worth 20 hours a week of your time back, the decision’s made for you. I definitely was spending 20 hours a week way more that I’m now able to put in other parts of my business.