Steve Kamb: Finding the Focus to Get Hooked on Real-life Progress
At Freedom, we love our users – not just because they use our product, but because they’re cool – cool people working on cool stuff. Academy Award-nominated screenwriters, bestselling authors, editors, journalists, developers, illustrators, designers, academics, coaches, podcast hosts, explorers, and entrepreneurs – the Freedom community is packed with curious, creative, and passionate go-getters. We love to share their stories, advice, and process because how better to learn about productivity than from the productive?
Meet Steve Kamb.
Steve Kamb is an author, fitness coach, and the founder of NerdFitness.com – a worldwide community of nerds, geeks, and self-aware robots. After battling with his own health and fitness for six years, Steve finally had some success and realized that there must be other people out there fighting the same battle. Steve started Nerd Fitness in 2009 with a goal of helping other people like him remove every barrier — mental, physical, or emotional — that prevents them from changing and living healthier, happier lives. What started as a one-man side project has now evolved into a huge online community and movement.
Steve started Nerd Fitness writing articles about his own fitness findings and personal experience. However, ten years later, Nerd Fitness now has a core team of 25 people and has evolved to offer courses and one-on-one training.
Steve is also the author of Level Up Your Life, a strategy guide for turning life into a game and becoming an actual superhero. As an avid gamer, Steve works to incorporate the same behavioral techniques used by great video games in his coaching and content to help people get hooked on making real life progress.
Steve has guest lectured at Google and Facebook, lived like James Bond in Monte Carlo, and hopes to one day become Captain America. So this week we decided to sit down with him to learn a little more about how he battles digital distraction to focus on the real-life progress that matters most.
How did you know that you wanted to be an author, coach, and founder of Nerd Fitness? What were your first steps in making this your career?
I actually fell into this journey somewhat accidentally. I had spent most of high school and college exercising and trying to get healthier, but it wasn’t until after college I finally learned about nutrition and actually saw progress. I quickly realized that if I had spent 6 years trying to change and making all sorts of mistakes, there had to be other people out there like me who needed help getting healthy, but didn’t have 6 years to waste.
While working a particularly miserable and unfulfilling job, I stumbled across Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Workweek in a bookstore and my hero’s journey began.
Part of the book discussed combining something you enjoy with something unique, and carving out your own little niche to create a small business around. As somebody that lived for video games, Star Wars, and Harry Potter, I googled “nerd fitness,” curious if anybody had combined the two subjects.
Finding nothing, I bought NerdFitness.com and just started writing nerdy articles helping beginners get started with exercise. I quickly discovered that I LOVED to write creatively, and started spending every night and weekend pouring all of my time into creating content and building a fun online community around my space. Heavily inspired by Star Wars, I started referring to our community as “the Rebellion,” and encouraged people to join our cause.
After about 2 years, I had built up enough of an audience to quit my day job and make it my full time job. Since then, I’ve slowly grown the company and reinvested back into it as much as I can. Ten years later, we now have a team of 25 full-time people, and serve tens of thousands of customers, and have over a million visitors each month.
As for writing a book, I am so grateful I stumbled across Tim’s book in a bookstore all those years ago – it truly changed my life’s path. I wanted to pay it forward and create a book that somebody would stumble across and pick up and have their life’s path changed too. I’ll admit, I cried the first time I saw Level Up Your Life on a real bookshelf.
At what point did you realize that tech was taking a toll on your productivity, time, and relationships? When did you know that you had to do something about it?
Honestly, I’ve known this ever since I was a little kid!
I remember I couldn’t sleep once for a week because I kept hearing the dungeon music from Legend of Zelda for the Super Nintendo in my head! My mom forbade me from playing video games for a month, and ever since then I’ve had an on-again, off-again affair with video games and technology.
I’m also one of the world’s best procrastinators – I was one of those people who would start 10-page papers the night before they were due and needing to stay up all night to get them done.
As I found myself attempting to get Nerd Fitness off the ground, I realized I had let video games and tech take a priority over making real life progress, so I actually quit gaming completely to get the company off the ground. I found it easier to go cold turkey for a few years instead of trying to rely on willpower to get myself to only play a little bit.
Have you ever played video games?! They’re amazing. And like junk food, I can’t get myself to just play a bit.
These days, now that Nerd Fitness has become my career, I still set aside a few weeks here and there to dive back into games, but I also use them as a learning experience. I’m always thinking about what behavioral or game mechanics we can borrow from great games and how to apply them to our content or courses at Nerd Fitness to help people get hooked on making real life progress.
How do you prioritize what gets your time and attention each day?
I use a project management software called Trello that helps me organize the tasks that need to get done each day, each week, and each month. I find it very satisfying to drag a card from “To Do Today” to “Doing Now” to “Done!” It appeals to my gamer mentality of knowing exactly what I need to do and getting that hit of dopamine when it’s done.
As for how to prioritize, I’m huge fan of the books The One Thing and Essentialism, so I try to ask myself “What’s ONE thing I can do today that will make everything else easier or obsolete?” I then make sure that one thing gets done first each morning before I tackle anything else in my “Today” column.
I’ve structured my company in such a way that I can really focus on my unique strengths: writing and community building. Every morning is spent creating content for Nerd Fitness, and afternoons are spent focused on the Rebellion and checking in with Team Nerd Fitness.
Lastly, there’s another tactic I’ve learned from my friend and writing buddy, Nir Eyal. Nir and I write together on Tuesdays and Fridays, and considering he wrote the book on habit-forming products (Hooked), I trust him implicitly!
Here’s the tactic he shared with me: “schedule every minute of your day.”
Schedule every minute of your dayNir Eyal
From the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed, I know what type of task I’m supposed to be working on. Every workout is in my calendar. I have large uninterrupted blocks for writing. I schedule small blocks of “mess around on the internet!” Doing so makes me feel more likely to stay focused during my writing sessions. I also find it helpful to schedule time for CEO/Admin tasks in my calendar – so I make sure I give those things the time and attention they deserve too, instead of burying them further down the to-do list!
How do you stay focused and motivated on a daily basis? Do you have a routine, ritual, or process that helps to get into a productive flow?
I completely gave up on just “trying harder” to focus more and stay motivated. I know those things are going to fail me the moment I have a lapse, because distractions these days are too good!
I’ve had days where I’ll accidentally find myself watching 3 hours of baby wombat videos on YouTube. Why wombats? Because they’re adorable. But that doesn’t help me get my work done.
Knowing this about myself and how quickly I can get derailed, I use a few techniques and tactics to give me the best chance to have a good day.
For starters, I’m an early riser (around 6AM), and my day starts with homemade cold brew coffee (I keep a jar in the fridge, even in the dead of winter). Once I have my coffee, I read a book – generally nonfiction for 30-45 minutes.
At this point I usually haven’t even looked at my phone, though it’s no problem if I have. There’s nothing fun on there! I don’t have social media on my phone, I don’t have games on my phone, I don’t have email on my phone, and all notifications are turned off.
I then go sit down at my computer, and if I’m smart – which doesn’t happen all the time – I’ll immediately turn on Freedom to block all the sites I love to waste time on. I put on my headphones and have a custom playlist I’ve created in Spotify called “Writing Vocal Trance Mix.” it has a lot of free 80 minute mixes from a DJ named Marco PM (the site is pmvibes.net). I don’t even know how I found Marco, but Marco if you happen to read this, my friends and I all listen to your mixes all day, every day!
There’s something about ice cold cold brew, a good vocal trance mix, and nothing to distract me that can help me get in the zone with writing. On days when I’m crushing it, I can crank out 10,000+ words in a few hours and it feels effortless.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, I go to my friend Nir’s house and we write together. He sets a timer on his phone, we both put our headphones in, open our laptops at his kitchen table, and get to work for 45 minutes. We then have a quick break to discuss what we’re writing, what’s going on in our lives, etc. I often find I can get more done here in 2 hours than I can with 8 hours back at home in my home office.
How do you optimize your environment for productivity and focus? How do you incorporate Freedom into your schedule?
Because I need to use the internet for work – finding PubMed studies or grabbing specific videos on how to demonstrate a certain exercise, I generally can’t block all sites. Luckily, that’s where Freedom comes in! I have multiple blocklists that I turn on for various lengths of time – I tend to block the sites that I can’t help but get lost in: reddit, imgur, ign, gamespot, and so on. I generally block those sites for at least an hour, or sometimes 3+ hours when I know I need to get a lot done – like this interview!
I’ve largely removed social media from my life, but I do still need to occasionally check Facebook to connect with our private communities for Nerd Fitness. For that reason, I’ve installed Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator, a plugin for Google Chrome that disables my newsfeed and instead feeds me a productivity quote. This plugin probably cut my Facebook time wasting down by 95% almost instantly.
As for my actual work environment itself, I work at a sit-stand desk convertible desk. I tend to sit when writing, but occasionally adjust it to the standing position while doing video interviews or batching email processing.
I have a separate monitor with my laptop on a stand, so I keep my calendar up on the laptop screen to remind me which task I should be focusing on. I don’t keep an email tab open on my browser, and generally it’s a single window with the current project I’m working on in a google document. That’s it.
What is the most difficult or challenging aspect about your work or working process? Do you have any strategies that you use to help overcome these challenges?
I need to be at a computer for work, and I need to use the internet for a lot of that work. And I’m REALLY good at convincing myself that I need to visit Reddit or Youtube for “research” about an exercise or study or clip and if I’m not careful I’ll lose an hour to watching somebody speedrun a video game I’ve never even played. It only takes an instant.
So, the biggest challenge is protecting me from myself!
Let me give one more example. When I started Nerd Fitness, I had built in motivation every day: I knew that if I didn’t get my work done, I couldn’t afford to pay rent or eat the next month. When my back was up against the wall, it’s amazing how much I could get accomplished!
These days, I am fortunate that immediate threat of “you can’t eat next month” is gone – but that makes the focus all that much more challenging. My time these days needs to be focused on the “important but not urgent” tasks that will help grow and protect the business for the next decade…but it’s so easy to ignore those things in favor of something urgent and useless like responding to emails.
So I leverage my team. I commit to deadlines with coworkers and know that they’re counting on me. We have a traditional publish schedule (I write the emails that go out to our list every Monday and Thursday), so those deadlines really help hone my focus and get stuff done when it’s not completely urgent or required for survival anymore.
There’s one final strategy I employ: Forgiveness and openness. If I’m procrastinating on a project, or finding myself cleaning the apartment rather than working, I dig deeper. I ask myself why. Is it because I REALLY like cleaning? Or is it because I’m not excited, not sure, or maybe I’m scared about the project I’m working on? And if that’s the case – how can I move it forward in some meaningful way, or get help from a team member on it?
I know I go through streaks of insane productivity followed by weeks of grinding, and that’s okay. I use Freedom to supercharge the weeks when I need to be focused, and use it as a guardrail on the days when I find myself constantly slipping into time-wasting activities.
What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your working process?
I use Captio more than any other app on my phone. It’s a simple program that allows me to type anything, and then it emails that message to my inbox. I use this as my reminder/braindump tool. Whether I wake up in the middle of the night with an article idea or I don’t want to forget flowers for my mom’s birthday, I quickly open captio, type the message, and get it out of my head. Then, the next time I’m processing email – I can reread each message and see if I need to create a new trello task, start a new document, etc. I’ve probably used this app at least 10,000 times in the past few years. Admittedly, I’ve had plenty of moments where I have to play detective and try to decipher what the heck I was thinking when I wrote a particular message.
I really enjoy the app “Forest” too – it’s a simple app that takes over my phone screen, shows a timer for how much more ‘focus’ time I have left, and shows a tiny tree that grows bigger the longer I focus. At the end of each session, that tree gets planted in my garden. Simple, very effective. On days when Nir and I write together we both turn on timers, because I want my trees too!
There’s not a day that goes by where I’m not using Spotify. I probably have 50+ carefully curated mixes that I have fined tuned over the past decade: “Workout Mix,” “Vocal Trance Writing Mix,” “Epic Soundtrack Mix”, and so on. I have music playing 24/7 in my life, and a great mix helps get me in the zone.
Evernote. When I stumble across an article or somebody shares a great article with me, I quickly hit the Evernote plugin in Chrome, which allows me to scrape the content into a specific Evernote notebook. Once a week (Friday afternoons, generally), I’ll take my iPad to a coffee shop, and read the articles in offline mode so I can’t be distracted by anything else. Additionally, every workout I’ve done over the past 5 years is tracked in its own notebook in Evernote.
What projects are you currently most excited about?
I’m really excited about our rapidly expanding online 1-on-1 coaching program – we’re constantly in need of hiring more coaches. We’re closing in on 1,000 active clients, and we’ve seen some incredible success stories that I’m really proud of – from a single mother losing 100+ pounds to helping a doctor that essentially lives in airports and hotels get results.
We’re starting to add more gamification features and other nerdy easter eggs every day to the coaching app we built from the ground up, so it’s exciting to wake up every day and know that our clients are getting the best version of the app! Plus, as a nerd who loves gaming, it’s great to see our technology catch up with our ambition in this area!
On a more personal level, we’ve evolved pretty dramatically as a company over the past four years, and only in the past 6 months have I been able to focus on the activity that I love more than anything: writing! I’d love to write another book (or 5) someday, but right now I’m excited to continue working on making Nerd Fitness the best place to get health and fitness information in the galaxy.
What do you do outside of your work routine that helps you stay healthy and productive?
This probably won’t come as a surprise to you, but I never miss a workout: 4 days a week for about an hour – Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. I keep it very simple with barbell training and then some fun exercises on gymnastic rings.
I’ve tried meditating a dozen times with every technique and app known to man, and none of them stuck, though I do find my time in the gym meditative. I guess you don’t really have time to be distracted when you’re trying to pick up 400+ pounds! It requires immense focus.
I am a total bookworm, and read 1-2 books per week. I read nonfiction in the morning (personal development, psychology, stoicism), and I’ll read fiction at night when I’m in bed. I love Cal Newport’s digital minimalism philosophy, and have applied many lessons from him to my life.
As for working with my hands, I play music at various levels of terribleness. I’ve been playing piano since 4th grade, guitar since college, and the violin for the past 3 years. I am still quite terrible at the violin, but it brings me as much joy to me as it brings pain to my neighbor’s ears.
Where are you currently based?
After three hectic and years in the heart of Manhattan, I recently moved across the river to Hoboken, NJ.
To learn more about Steve Kamb or his work, you can visit his site at NerdFitness.com