Focus On This Podcast

96. How It’s Made: Full Focus Planner Edition



Ever wondered how the Full Focus Planner came to be? Every spec, from type of binding to paper quality to the cloth wrapped around the covers, has been specially selected to enhance the end user experience. How does that all happen?

In this episode, Courtney, Verbs, and Blake talk with Adam Hill, director of product development and design, about the nuts and bolts behind the Full Focus Planner. They’ll share stories, processes, how decisions are made, and even how the oatmeal planner started out as a mistake. Before it was named the best daily planner by Forbes magazine, this is how the Full Focus Planner went from idea to finished product.

In this episode, you’ll discover—

  • The many steps between concept ideas and a planner in your hands
  • How changes and new iterations of the planner are executed
  • What factors are considered when creating a new planner
  • The 3 buckets of idea sorting and how to react to each one
  • Behind-the-scenes stories of the Full Focus Planner’s early days


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Episode Transcript

Verbs: Welcome to another episode of Focus on This, the most productive podcast on the Internet, so you can banish distractions, get the right stuff done, and finally start loving Mondays. I’m Verbs, here with Courtney Baker and Blake Stratton. Happy Monday, guys.

Courtney: Hey, do you guys remember on Mister Rogers… Do you know how sometimes he would take you on those field trips?

Verbs: Oh, yes.

Courtney: Specifically, do y’all remember the crayon factory?


[Audio clip]


Fred Rogers: A crayon coming up. The people wait for about five minutes for the yellow wax to get hard, and then they scrape off the top, which they’ll melt and use again. Now watch the crayons come into those crayon collectors. There they are.


[End of audio]


Verbs: Courtney, we are there right now. I was just about to say that.

Courtney: Are you serious?

Verbs: Where they melted the crowns? I promise you. They wrapped them. Yes.

Courtney: That episode has stayed with me, and I love it so much to this day. Because of that is why I’m really excited for everybody listening about today’s episode.

Blake: Full Focus crayons. I’m so excited to announce this. It’s amazing.

Verbs: You got the glove. Now wait for the crayon. So, today’s episode is a little bit unusual, if you cannot tell already. Instead of talking about how we use the planner, we’re going to take a look at how it’s made. To talk about that we have a very special guest. I mean, we might get into fabrics. We might get into the chemical compound or the ink makeup. Maybe, maybe not. But, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the Focus on This podcast Mr. Adam Hill, man, myth, and legend.

Adam: Hello. Good to be here.

Courtney: Adam, I feel like people before… I don’t want to tell people to stop listening right now, but I kind of need people to go watch… Well, you and Verbs are in these videos, but you recently did some “Full-Fail Meeting” videos for our No-Fail Meetings course. They are the funniest thing. I’ve honestly watched them multiple times. Blake, have you even seen these?

Blake: I’ve seen these, and frankly, I’ve hesitated to compliment Adam on them, because I know Hollywood is going to come calling. I know that’s going to happen, and right now, I rely on Adam to get so much done for our company when it comes to the planner that I’m hesitant to tell him just how good a job he did, because it’s going to be… You know, I’m sure SNL has reached out. Lorne Michaels has sent the emails. These ads are sweeping the nation.

Adam: There’s an Office reboot…

Courtney: It’s coming. Well, besides record hilarious videos, Adam, why don’t you tell everybody what you do here at Michael Hyatt & Company.

Adam: I am the director of product development and design, which is basically just… I take the books from the cradle to the grave is how I always phrase it.

Blake: Sounds quite cryptic.

Courtney: Wait, wait, wait.

Blake: No questions.

Courtney: So, is the shipping the grave?

Adam: When a book goes on sale, that’s sort of the grave, but even then…

Verbs: It’s the beginning of the end.

Adam: The journey for a book does not really end unless you discontinue it at some point. I have worked with books for many, many years, and I have seen books from all phases, start to finish.

Blake: You’re out there shaving the trees, getting that paper.

Adam: Yeah, man. Chewing it up. Mastication of the grains, getting that pulp fiber made. Every one by hand.

Blake: Mastication of the grains. That was actually one of your… You’ve been doing some songwriting too on the side. That’s a great song title right there if you need some inspiration.

Adam: That’s some Norse death metal.

Blake: “It was the mastication of the grains!”

Adam: Totally.

Verbs: Right now, available on iTunes or Spotify.

Courtney: Well, we have some questions for you, Adam, if you would indulge us and give us a little, you know, like the crayon factory, how this is all made. So, the first question we wanted to know was… Could you just walk us through the process of planner creation? Where does it start?

Adam: A planner will come into the idea to create it when… Say, the original planner. We had a couple of different courses and things we had, and then Michael and Joel and some other folks on the team all got together and developed this idea. They were like, “How do we turn this into something?” There are kind of two steps to doing that. On one hand, you have your editorial content, which is what you actually see and interact with. On the other hand, you have the physical manifestation of that idea or that concept that is in someone’s head. There are certain things you can and cannot do to make the dream work in reality.

The first part is a lot of ideation and some editorial folks talking with some manufacturing folks. At that time it was Joel and me. He asked me what I would suggest if he were to try to put this book together. What are some features it should have? Then, at the same time, you kind of have two trains running. The other train is “Well, let’s make the page look like this, and let’s assume it’s going to be 6×9” or “Let’s assume it’s going to be 7×10.” In our case, it’s 6×9. That’s the format, the size everybody seems the most comfortable with and likes to work with. We sell the most of that trim. We have a smaller trim, and we may at one point do a bigger trim.

Once you figure out your trim size and the way you want the book to work and the content… Like, ours has all of these different features that lead you through a quarter. Then you really get into “Well, this is how big our book is going to be.” So, you come up with a final file for that interior, and then you come up with your final specs for that book. Then you send off that file to a manufacturer, and then they spend… For our books, it’s about a 12-week process manufacturing them.

I could explain it to you guys… It’s like if you ever go to the airport, and you know what air traffic control is. The people who manufacture our books have… We are not their only customer. I know we like to feel like we are and they are just waiting for us to do something and send an order in, but the one we use is actually one of the largest printers in the world, and they work for all of the large publishing houses in the US.

They have all of these other jobs, and they all get their allotted time on these printing machines or these binding machines or these sewing machines or these application machines. Once you traverse all of those steps, they send you books in boxes or sometimes in packaging, or different ways, and then they go to our warehouse. All told, ideally, it takes about a year to do that or maybe eight months, but then actually making them is about 12 weeks.

Courtney: That was really interesting, Adam. Thanks for sharing that. Could you do a second take but this time do it as Mister Rogers?

Adam: Let me go get my sweater. It’s upstairs. It’s a little warm out today. I’m putting my shoes on right now. No, wait. He takes them off, doesn’t he? He’s taking them off.

Verbs: He swaps them out.

Adam: He’s swapping them out. He’s putting on the house shoes.

Blake: Adam, if we could maybe get a little more specific… I’m curious, because we have made several iterations of the planner now. We even have a Pocket version, a Bold line, a Coil version. Can you remember a planner iteration that you were most excited about and how that change came about? We’re a company kind of known for limiting focus. We don’t want to just make probably dozens and dozens of iterations. What’s an example of how you came up with an idea about a different kind of planner and what excited you about that process?

Adam: The one thing probably so far would be the Bold collection, or as we’ve called it in the past, the newer colors we introduced in September of 2019. That was one of the first things that had not preexisted me being totally in the company, so that was really fun to work with Megan and Courtney. We kind of all had ideas and we did our best. Then there was also the added puzzle that “This is something new. We’ve never done this before.” Then there are all of these other customer considerations, logistical considerations.

We just took this flurry of ideas, this tornado, and we distilled it down into the four products that we’ve sold really well. We’ve been able to broaden our palette. When you have a product where you have a gray planner and then you go and add other colors to that, there’s always a little bit of a risk and a little bit of dice rolling. That kind of stuff is just a lot of fun.

I love any kind of collaboration, because you can’t make a product just as a product person. You have to make a product talking to your marketing person, talking to your customer service person, talking to your sales person, because if you make products that don’t involve all of those people, it’s kind of pointless. So, I think you have to pull all of those things in and make it really collaborative and take into consideration everybody’s ultimate goal, and then you whittle it down. You whittle whatever is not David. I think Michelangelo… What is not David is what I chop away.

Blake: I mean, Michelangelo wasn’t quite as good of a product designer probably as our team is, but I get why that comparison might make sense.

Adam: Right.

Verbs: Adam, you’re the one who’s kind of charged with the curation and the experience or how people experience our planners, but when you’re thinking about creating a planner or the creation process, what kinds of factors go into that? What are the things you have to consider, for example, when it comes to the paper and the pen that won’t bleed through, binding…those sorts of things? What kinds of factors have to come to the table and be discussed to decide what’s actually going to go into it?

Adam: Oh man. There are a lot of different factors. The biggest factor is your end user…who they are, what they need, what they desire from a product, what their expectation level would be, and those types of things. Now, if you were putting on your finance hat, you would say the most important thing is how much we pay and how much we charge for them. There are also those considerations, because part of it is a business.

But really, you have to make those two… There’s always a sweet spot with what you can afford to do and what somebody will still feel like is a good value for what they’re going to pay. You want to make something that is a strong value for that customer, and you want them to walk away thinking, “I totally got my money’s worth, and I would totally buy this again.” You know, everyone is happy with where you land.

With our product, you’re looking at a consumer who has higher than your normal, higher than your average expectations or eye for detail and quality that they want to have when they go to purchase a tool for them to take to a meeting. It sort of speaks about them and their aesthetic or what they like to have as far as how they present themselves. Or even just the quality. They’re going to use it a lot. They’re going to take it places. They’re going to go from meeting to meeting. I don’t know when this podcast finally will air. I think everybody will be traveling a whole lot. But, yeah, this planner has to have a durability. It has to have a good price. It has to have a good value.

Courtney: So, Adam, you and I talk about this a lot, but we hear requests from our customers, usually inside the Full Focus Community. For everybody listening, they would probably love to hear some of the things that have come from customers that we’ve used to roll out in planners. Can you think of any of those examples off the top of your head?

Adam: Yeah. There’s one big one. It’s a content piece. For a long time we made the planner… Courtney, help me out here a little bit. You’re more familiar with the inner workings of the planner. There’s that preview that happens before that first week, and that used to not be in there. It’s on page 35 or so. Customer after customer was like, “When I start my new planner, I don’t have a way to pick up from where I left off in the last one, and I want a place to pull all that information and put it in.” I think it’s called Key Projects. You can make some sort of funny podcast sound that he got that right.

Courtney: It’s actually not. You didn’t get it right. Sorry.

Verbs: Oh. Oh. What is it?

Blake: So instead you’re going to get the tuba sound.

Courtney: The Key Projects is actually bigger projects that aren’t quite goals. This was at the end of your last… For new customers, when it’s their first time to use a planner, they don’t really need a Weekly Preview at the front, so that’s how we created the planner, but we realized as you’re using these over and over, you finish your last Weekly Preview, and then when you start the next one, there’s nowhere to put your Weekly Big 3, so for a minute you’re carrying around two planners. So, you were able to add that into the planner. I personally love it. That was one we heard from customers that I also was hard-core cheering along for as well.

Adam: A fun thing for manufacturing… We made that change. At this point, we have five or six planners, and they all have to get that feature pushed into them. So, you already have X amount of planners you’ve made. You already have X amount of planners that are shipping that have the old format, but now you’re going to print new ones, but you have a 12- to 14-week lead time. So by the time those get into your warehouse, it’s three or four months later after you’ve made that change.

With our customer service, they were like, “So, does the poppy one have it now? Does the eggplant one have it now? Does the black one?” I figured out for everybody sort of a weather forecast of when you can expect that change in the weather to actually hit product that your customer will order. We are, I think, free and clear of all that now. I think any one you get would have it.

Courtney: That’s probably a really complex part of your role. We are always making the planner better. Never for a minute have we been like, “This is it. It’s perfect.” We’re constantly throwing out new things to you. I think it would be interesting to hear how you navigate that. As things are always changing, always getting better from a manufacturing side or even just a personal side… I think some people may get frustrated by that. I don’t think that is ever how you’ve handled it. That might be interesting.

Adam: That’s always kind of the fun part. The planner is an organic thing we have, because we all use it, and we’re this collective group of people as a company and as our consumer, our customer, our fan base. There’s going to be input because life changes, people change, habits change. This last year, meetings changed significantly in 2020. So, there are always going to be these things… And the colors. Colors change. People’s moods change. People’s styles change. Fashion changes.

All of those things are always in flux, so we want to try to always be able to react to that. Now, when you react to things, you kind of put things in different buckets. Some things are like, “Well, that would be awesome, but we can’t do that because it would bankrupt us.” Or there are some ideas that are like, “Well, that would be awesome, but it might be really hard. There are some challenges.” Then there are other ideas that are like, “Well, okay. Yeah, that’s easy as pie, and we can do that next week and you’ll see it.”

The ones in that middle part are the ones that are the most fun, because then you have to do a lot of thinking and cross-collaboration, and then you finally land that plane. Sometimes you’re still putting the plane together when you land it. Sometimes it lands on two… How many wheels does a plane have? I don’t know. Three? You land on two wheels.

Courtney: Probably 12. I don’t know.

Adam: Twelve. You land on six.

Verbs: All right. Adam, what’s the one thing every planner user should know about their planner?

Adam: If you have a planner, you should know that I have made and specced a ton of different kinds of books, everything from paperback books to staple-bound booklets that you probably get at Easter from your church to Cadillac Bibles that had all of the bells and whistles and gilded edges and everything in between, and I really can assure you that this is a top-notch book. It is really well put together.

It has a Smyth Sewn binding. It has a hard cover. It’s covered in a material that is a grade B cloth, which is going to be really stain resistant. It has two ribbons. It has an envelope in the back, and it has an elastic band. I mean, this is not a paperback book. This is not a bargain bin, chump change book. This is a top-notch Ferrari book you are toting around. The paper is a good quality. It’s a high quality. Another thing to think about… Sometimes people are like, “Why is the paper not thicker?” Well, if the paper was thicker, thicker, and thicker, then your book would be heavier, heavier, and heavier, and your book would be wider, wider, and wider. The size of the book is really great.

There was a lot of thought put into all of the pieces that go into the planner you have, so you should use it knowing unless I hand made one myself, you know, a bespoke planner, this is about as good as you could get…on anything I’ve seen in the market, and I’m always looking and checking. I am a habitual book sniffer. Anytime I go to the store, if there’s a book… In bookstores… When I go into somebody’s office, I just start touching their books. I mean, I’m out of control.

Verbs: For the record, though, you have been known to whip up a prototype in your garage somewhere with some paper and glue and put those things together. Or at least for photo shoots.

Adam: I have done that for photo shoots. We had an instance once where we threw in a new product over a summer, and we were moving so quickly I did not get full samples made, because, first, we really didn’t have time, and second, I misunderstood. But even if I had understood, I don’t think we would have had time. So I got internal pages of the books mailed to me, and then dummies of the books mailed to me.

I took these pieces apart and glued them back together in a way that built the middle of the book so the photographer and I could fake a photo shoot of these books. I mean, literally, these books were about to fall apart while he was shooting them. I would stick my hand on the thing, and then I would pull my hand out of the shot and he would take the photo, and then it would all kind of collapse on its fly paper on itself, and then we would do the next page. It was awesome.

Blake: Oh my gosh.

Verbs: That’s amazing. Here’s one thing I did want to ask, because I know people think about this when they get their planner. One of our company values is total ownership, and one of the things we want to take ownership of is the way our company impacts the planet. So can you speak to the ways we work to keep planner production green?

Adam: Yeah. Every once in a while, I’ll meet somebody or run into somebody, and they’ll want to talk about paper or they’ll want to talk about book manufacturing. You should really know that in any US manufacturer, the ecological movement is not a new thing to them. It is not news to them that this is going on. In fact, I can’t think of one that does not have an ecological mindset and an ecological viewpoint when they’re looking at the stewardship and the long-term deal of the business they’re in. All of the paper manufacturers I know of and the ones we use take this very seriously.

They have been in programs. They have been working since even into the early 1900s, some of them, or as long as they’ve been in business, to try to be better stewards. The farming and forestry initiatives… So, any paper we use is coming from… The chain of custody for that paper is very strong, very ecologically minded. Their goals are low emissions, low rates of pollution wherever their factories are, and all of the other cover materials we use and the ribbons…everything. Anybody manufacturing something to go into a book has very high standards for ecological concerns.

Courtney: I’ll also give our listeners a little Easter egg here. We’re also, hopefully later this year, going to come out with our most green planner to date. I can’t say a lot more about that, but that will be coming.

Blake: Yeah. We’re dyeing the pages a Ninja Turtle hue. Right?

Adam: Yep. Donatello… There’s Michelangelo. He came back.

Blake: There you go. There it is. Full circle. It’s the Michelangelo planner.

Adam: Bam! It’s green. Very green.

Blake: Adam, one thing I think I can connect with is just a little bit of snobbery. Not snobbery…preference. You know what’s good, and you probably know (this is an assumption) what you like. You’ve touched a lot of books. You’ve built a lot of books. You’ve sold a lot of books. What’s the planner that is your all-time favorite planner, either the one you keep on your own desk or just the one you’re most proud of, like, “That was the one”?

Adam: I kind of have two answers to that. You can pick which one you like the best. I like the Olive one a lot because I like the color, and I think the end sheets are kind of fun. It was fun to bring that one together. That was one of the first ones that we kind of cracked the code on how we were going to do that stuff. But my favorite planner is the Oatmeal one because its genesis is in a mistake.

When we first started planning all of these new colors, I had all of these samples, and there was this one, a lovely off-white, khaki, desert-looking color that we were like, “Bam! That is a beautiful planner. Let’s make that.” So I went back to the manufacturer. I wrote down all of the codes for all of these different pieces and sent them off. I got the samples back, and I got back this dark chocolate brown. I was like, “This is not what we thought it was.”

So I cut it in half. I mailed it to them. I circled “This is the color it’s supposed to be.” They called me back, and they were like, “That’s the back side of the material.” I was like, “Well, that’s what we want. You already know how to make it, so just make it on purpose.” So, we have a custom color. I think they call it latte, or something, at the manufacturer we use. It’s specific to us. No one else has that color, and it’s the back of an existing color.

Blake: That’s awesome.

Verbs: Well, today you got a behind-the-scenes look at how the planner is made. Adam, we just want to give you this one opportunity since you’re here. Any final thoughts for the Focus on This listeners, either planner-wise or otherwise?

Adam: I just want them to know, if they’re out there and if they’re using our planner, a lot of thought goes into it, and I love working with our team and the ideas our marketing team or our sales team or our customer service team or our content team get. We have geniuses in-house who are always cooking up these storms of creativity, and I love to take all of those different things and distill them into something that makes it a reality for everybody out there to go and buy and try out.

These tools are incredible. I’ve read so many great stories of transformation and how they’ve helped folks. It’s just exciting. It’s a good, fulfilling thing to be a part of. As a bookmaker, a manufacturer, who kind of fits in a weird spectrum of how you do things as far as manufacturing brains go, it just could not be a better thing for me to be able to work at every day. I love it.

Blake: Adam, thank you so much for bringing the knowledge. What a refreshing perspective for this podcast. They’re used to me just yammering on. Here you are with real valuable knowledge on the inner workings. So, appreciate you taking the time, being with us, and I think everyone, especially those holding that Oatmeal planner right now… They’re going to consider it a little differently.

Verbs: They’ll hold it a little tighter tonight.

Blake: When they write their Big 3, they’re going to be like, “Huh. This really is the correct paper thickness.” So thank you, my friend.

Verbs: And thank you for joining us on Focus on This. This is the most productive podcast on the Internet, so please share it with your friends, and we’ll be here next week with another great episode. Until then…

All: Stay focused!