Chris Hardwick is everywhere.
You may know Chris as the founder of The Nerdist, which has grown from a podcast and blog into a media empire. Or maybe you know him from @midnight, the off-color Comedy Central game show that poked fun at social media for 600 episodes. Or from his festival-headlining stand-up act. Or from Talking Dead, the AMC TV show where Chris and friends chat about a fictional zombie apocalypse.
What you may not know is that Chris is a longtime fan of Evernote—even offering product feedback on Twitter—and he’s also someone who purposefully re-organized his life, changing his habits to become the person he wanted to be.
For the season finale of our podcast, “Taking Note,” we sat down with Chris to get his thoughts on creative productivity, motivation, and organization. We also discussed the evolving state of social media, nerd culture, and what the world of comedy can teach us about building up small ideas into something worth sharing.
Want to know more? Listen below or read on for a partial transcript of our conversation.
Taking Note: Episode 12 — Chris Hardwick
Length: 45 minutes
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On designing a career
You are involved in so many different projects all at once. Is this your natural mode?
Yeah, it is. I’m sure there’s a little bit of a quality where I can’t sit still. I’ve just reached 14 years of sobriety, and when I got sober I decided to point some of those obsessive qualities toward self-improvement and organization. I was not an organized person in my 20s. My life was a mess. Bills were late. I wasn’t keeping track of anything. I would just have stacks of paper everywhere for notes and my life was an organizational disaster.
So I really started focusing on how to get a handle on everything and sort things and keep track. What I realized was that we’re in an age where—more than any other age—we can design the careers that we want. The Internet allows us to reach our audiences directly. Whatever our goods and services are, we can reach consumers without having some big corporate go-between.
The career that I have was really designed. I mean, it’s all intention. I sought to create this kind of a career because number one, I didn’t want to end up doing the same thing all day every day, because that would drive me crazy. The other thing was that it occurred to me that I wanted to diversify my career kind of like a stock portfolio because in entertainment, things change, you never know what’s going to happen. You never really feel like you have guaranteed employment.
And so, I wanted to have like five or six things going on so that if something fell through or got canceled or went away then I wouldn’t feel like my entire life has just been destroyed and I’ve got to start over. Part of it was to satisfy the way that my brain works and the other part of it was for survival.
How do you choose a project?
Ten years ago, I was unemployed. Nothing was really working out for me. No one was coming to see me do stand-up. I looked at everything that I had experience doing. I’d been hosting shows for 13 years. I knew I was capable of doing that. I knew I had a strong comedy voice. I knew that I loved this certain swath of things that would be stereotypically categorized as nerd culture. Before the 2000s, you couldn’t really do anything too much in “nerd culture” because our culture hadn’t niche-ified yet. To try to pitch nerd-centric things in the 1990s, networks were just laughing and like, “Well, the audience is too small.”
Then with the advent of the Internet and the cinematic revolution of X-Men, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, all these things really kind of blew up Comic-Con culture into pop culture. I guess I just looked at all those things and I said, look, I have an interest in these cultural things. I love science, I love technology. And so, because I have the experience I have, I really only want to be involved in things that revolve around that. Whether it’s comedy that involves these topics, hosting shows, hosting a science show, hosting a tech show, anything like that, these are all the areas that I have expertise and interest and so I’m just going to focus on that.
From the outside, it sort of looked like I was narrowing down zero options to even less than zero options but actually what it did was give me an incredible amount of focus and a path. Almost immediately… it was so surreal the way that it happened. Within a couple weeks after making this decision, I saw that they were trying to cast for a science show that Wired magazine was doing with PBS. And so, I just said, well, this is exactly what I was talking about. This is pop culture but it’s science and it’s hosting. There’s no one else better for this than me. I can check every box there.
And so, I went in, very determined, and I got the job. We did ten episodes of it but I ended up contributing to Wired for like six years. That led to doing tech reviews for G4 and Attack of the Show. Within that time I created Nerdist.
I’m half physical notebook and half digital notebook. But I was never able to find a digital program that worked for me before Evernote.
Making that one decision of asking what do I really want to do and what do I think I’m good at is really where it all changed for me, but I could not have done it without having some sense of organizational skills. It just wasn’t possible. I’m half physical notebook and half digital notebook. But I was never able to find a digital program that worked for me before Evernote.
You mentioned rearranging your life to go after this big goal that was built on your strengths, but how did you go about doing it?
Asking a lot of questions and then breaking that down. If you read a ton of self-help stuff and self-improvement stuff, and lifestyle blogs and organizational blogs, you find that there’s really a handful of basic principles. The core of it is really pretty simple: What do I want, what’s the next actionable item, what steps do I think will get me there? Can I take one step today toward the attainment of that goal? And then every so often checking in: Am I on track, do I still want this goal? When you get into the process, sometimes you learn things that change your mind about what you want to do.
But really, it’s just about breaking things down. When you’re writing goals, just make sure that your action items are actually actionable. Like, you wouldn’t just write “a million dollars!” because that’s not an actionable phrase. It needs an action verb in there somewhere so that you know how to approach it. It’s really about finding the quanta or the most basic thing that you can do next in order to move closer to the thing that you think you want.
“A million dollars” doesn’t work as a goal. “Make a million dollars,” okay, now you’ve got a verb in there, but that’s not the right verb.
Even if you say “make a million dollars,” it’s really important to write out why. And the reason that it’s important to write out why is because you might find, you actually don’t want that thing. If you find out you do want that thing, the why of it all helps you understand the emotional reason. Emotion is what drives motivation. Until you’re emotionally motivated, you’re probably not going to commit to doing something because everything takes work.
You’re not going to do that work when things get hard if there isn’t an emotional fire stoking the action. That’s why really important to understand why you want those things that you say you want.
Organizing calendars and notes
You must have some pretty hardcore time management skills.
I have a pretty good time management skills at this point, for sure. I also have an amazing assistant who is more organized than I am. But even before that, I color-coded my calendar. Green is anything that has to do with work. Blue is anything that has to do with something personal. Purple is our live shows. There’s sort of a pinkish color that is the podcast. Yellow is anything that involves press. Light blue is fitness.
I think color-coding your calendar is really important because if your calendar is just full one color, it’s going to look like an overwhelming mess. Color helps you realize that your events are modular. The color is going to tell you what emotional importance it has, so you can make better decisions about how and where to put things and balancing out your days. Like, “oh I have all green this one day but maybe I need to throw in some blue so that I’m doing some things for me personally.”
Do you do the same sort of structure with your notes?
I have a handful of notebooks. I have a stand-up notebook, I have a goals notebook. I have a house stuff notebook. I have a philosophy notebook—I use the Evernote clipper in Chrome, so I’ll clip things that I feel like are positive outlooks on life, interesting thoughts on sobriety or taking action. Just anything that’s for personal development. And within that I’ll tag things. So it’s like, well, this is about sobriety, this is about motivation, this is about organization. I keep that up.
I keep a log of things I’m thankful for. You can get so caught up in running, running, running that you don’t always stop to appreciate what you’re doing.
I also have a notebook that’s just gratitude. I keep a log of things I’m thankful for. You can get so caught up in running, running, running that you don’t always stop to take a breath and appreciate what you’re doing.
The changing face of social media
You also recently wrapped up @midnight, the Comedy Central show where you and a bunch of other comedians, four nights a week over the course of four years, would make fun of whatever was going on social media on that day. Have you seen it change in that time?
Oh my god, yes. My friend Mike Phirman has this great description of when they first started making films, moving pictures. And the technology alone was enough to justify using it. “Horse Walking Up Stairs” would be a whole movie.
Social media used to be, “hey, I’m awake, look at what I had for breakfast.” Then it very quickly became something where people realized they could get news really fast. So then it became a real, substantive information outlet. And then they started to realize, oh, this can create actual social change.
But now I think social media has really morphed into, unfortunately, a lot of yelling. The loudest voices do tend to rise to the top. I do think there are still very powerful uses for social change on social media, but it’s such a crazy time right now that I don’t see as many superfluous tweets anymore.
As many outrageous things as there are going on in the world, I do think we’re a bit addicted to outrage and social media is sort of the outlet for that. It’s not all negative. I don’t want to paint that picture. But social media used to be just be silly and fun and now it’s heavy. I feel like social media is really heavy right now.
This also ties into that whole notion of nerd culture becoming mainstream. The “flame war” has been a part of the Internet since before anyone called it the Internet.
Yes, absolutely. Anyone who’s been on a forum since there were forums knows that within two or three lines of any thread—and I’m sure there’s some sort of a formula for this—it just becomes a [cursing] match. Then it just becomes like a shouting schoolyard.
When you’re just reading text, a lot of what you’re reading is the through filter of your own baggage. There’s so much nuance and subtlety that’s lost.
Communication is meant to be in person. It really is meant to be in person. That’s how our brains have developed. We read people’s faces, their expressions, we take social cues, visual cues. We can hear intonation, their audio cues.
When you’re just reading text, a lot of what you’re reading is through the filter of your own baggage. You can infer what you think the writer was intending, but there’s so much nuance and subtlety that’s lost. And then on top of that, people are interfacing with machines, which is very impersonal.
And so, when you’re reading text, if you’re misinterpreting it and then saying f— you back, your brain is thinking that you’re doing that to a machine. Because you’re interfacing with a machine and not a human being.
Productivity lessons from the comedy world
[Stand-up comedy] requires a lot of skills from the person who’s on stage. Yes, you have to be funny, but you also have to be able to think fast. You have to see where things are going. You have to have psychological understanding. And then that notion of timing. What do you think those of us who are non-comedians can learn from studying the way comedy works?
I think being a comedian helped prepare me for being whatever type of entrepreneur I am. When you’re a comedian, it’s just you. You’re responsible for all of it. You have to write and craft these ideas and concepts. You go up alone in front of people. You learn on the fly whether or not things work. In a way, comedy is like marketing because you’re selling these ideas to an audience and seeing in real time whether or not they’re going to fly. And if they don’t, you have to figure out how to make them work real quick.
I think you learn improvisation, you learn how to connect with people, you learn how to read people. You learn how to work on the fly. I always recommend to people, whether they want to be a comedian or not, go take an improv class somewhere. Because no matter what you do, learning how to improvise is an incredibly valuable resource to draw on. It gives you an incredible amount of confidence and you feel like no matter what happens, you can figure it out.
Most comedians have to write things down. You really do learn how to get your ideas out and sort through them and craft them and organize them. Even if your organizational system isn’t recognizable to anyone else, everyone has a proprietary organizational system.
Most comedians have to write things down. You learn how to get your ideas out, sort through them, craft them, and organize them.
Joan Rivers had a million note cards which she organized in little drawers. Other people use notebooks, other people use cocktail napkins. I will mostly write big ideas and work my stuff out in Evernote, but then when I’m ready to go perform, I actually write down the set list in a notebook because the act of writing with my hand kind of helps get it into my molecules a little better.
But I have gone on stage when I’m trying new stuff and I just have Evernote open in presentation mode and I have the phone down on the stool. I think because I had a leg in the analog world before the digital world, I use both.
So you’re writing down all this material as you come up with it. Do you have a review cycle every once in a while?
I do. The review cycle is not really a period of time. For instance, I just started touring again. I had five shows in Minneapolis recently and about a week before that, I opened up Evernote and started really plowing through all the ideas I had just been randomly collecting. In my notebook, I start writing down the ones that stick out and I start trying to connect them, saying, “what’s the through-line here?”
You realize, like, oh there’s a through-line here that I didn’t consciously intend, but my subconscious brain was trying to express. All these ideas are actually weirdly connected, as disparate as they might seem.
On starting small and building up
So what else is in your toolkit? We know you’ve got Evernote. We know you’ve got the calendars and the color coding, and you mentioned that use a physical notebook sometimes too. What else is essential?
That’s kind of it. I mean, the other thing that’s essential is sort of knowing what your creative threshold is. I’m pretty good at writing for like a half hour straight and then after that, I start to get distracted. If you know like, well, I’m going to schedule 10, 15, 30 minutes, you can find ten minutes in your schedule to do something creative. And if you schedule it every day, that’s achievable.
So you focus ten minutes a day without really caring how far you get, or about being done, or whatever. You just do ten minutes a day and the next day you do ten minutes and the next day you do ten minutes. And then you find after a month—which goes by very quickly—you have a ton of material because you were just consistent and you just did it little bits at a time, as opposed to thinking, “oh, I have to write for four hours a day and I don’t have time for that.”
You just adopt this idea of a little bit at a time, a little step at a time, a little bit, little bit, little bit. And then it becomes like compounded interest in a bank account or a stock portfolio. Over time, the exponential growth becomes staggering from just little bits, little bits, little bits, little bits.
There’s no trick to getting better at stuff; you just have to do that stuff. In order to do that, you have to organize your time. I’ll often tell people, for a week, track everything you do with a stopwatch. Just so you start getting a sense of how long it takes you to do everything. And then once you get that raw data, you can look at: “how much time did I waste?”
There’s no trick to getting better at stuff, you just have to do that stuff. In order to do that, you have to organize your time.
When you’re on the Internet, if you’re answering emails or whatever, you might think, “well, I worked for three hours,” but if you actually timed everything you were doing in that three hours you might see, oh, I actually only did about 35 minutes of real work and the rest of it was going down YouTube rabbit holes or looking at Reddit. And you realize, oh, I can carve that out, just do the 35 minutes of work I meant to do and devote another two hours and 25 minutes, I can parse that out into really useful, efficient things.
You think you were being productive and realize you weren’t. You were just doing something that satisfied some part of your brain.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. And that’s why the best thing you can do is just write down everything. With comedy, it always happens and I think almost every comedian will tell you, you think of a joke and you go, “I don’t need to write it down, I’ll never forget that.” And then ten minutes later, you’re like, “what the f— was I just…”
It’s important to write everything down. Whether it’s a notebook or Evernote or whatever, keep track of all that stuff because it allows you to manipulate it, like in your color-coded calendar, to make that information into modular bits of useful data that you can move around and use in more effective ways.
In the same way that you would organize a closet, and have everything stacked and put exactly where you know where everything is, it allows you to do that emotionally with your life in all the intangible things that you can’t see, but you experience. And it allows you to create so much better of an emotional flow for work and your personal life. But you can’t do that unless you really start tracking all that stuff.
To hear the rest of this interview, click the player above or download the episode from iTunes, SoundCloud, Overcast, or your podcast platform of choice.
Taking Note will return early next year with Season Two. If you have feedback for us, let us know with a comment or review on your favorite podcast platform. Thanks for listening!