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Van Halen’s Genius* Productivity Hack

By November 20, 2018 No Comments

One of the “secrets” of top performers (in business and elsewhere) is their use of smart systems — the automation of regular, routine, “mid-value” activity that frees up that time for higher-value work.

One of my favorite examples of a “smart” system comes from an unlikely source: rock-n-roll super group, Van Halen.

While on tour in the 1980s, Van Halen used the “M&M Test” to ensure that their stage and equipment was set up to their specifications, every night.

Here’s how it worked:

In the contract rider (e.g. the agreement that described how the stage should be set up, as well as the special needs — food, etc — of the band) there was a specific clause:

“There will be NO BROWN M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”

As the band’s lead singer, David Lee Roth, explained in an interview:

“When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl…we’d line-check the entire production. It was guaranteed that we’d find a technical error. We knew they hadn’t read the contract carefully. Sometimes the oversight would have destroyed the whole show. Sometimes it would have been like, literally, life-threatening.”

A smart system.


At worst, smart systems save time. At best, they save lives.

While you are likely facing the same production challenges as Van Halen, here are a few domains/activities where smart systems can help:

  • Managing your money
  • Planning your day
  • Saying “no”
  • Eliminating distraction
  • Meeting management (start + end on time)
  • Planning travel
  • Shopping
  • Working out
  • Eating healthy

I personally use smart systems to…

  • Invest in an emotion-free, best-practice way (including rebalancing my portfolio)
  • Save for major expenses including: vacations, new cars and unexpected emergencies.
  • Evaluate charitable giving requests
  • Say “no” to low-value requests on my time (without agonizing, or hurting anyone’s feelings)
  • Manage my time (e.g. ensure I get my most important work done between 9-5, every day).
  • Fitness (create space to exercise at least 5 times / week)
  • Eat a better breakfast
  • Perform routine home/auto maintenance
  • Stay aligned / in-sync with my wife

These systems save me not only countless hours of time, but also an unquantifiable amount of mental and emotional energy.

Like Van Halen’s “M&M Test” these systems ensure that I spend less time worrying “what if?” and more time thinking “what’s next?”

How about you?

Where/how might you use “smart” systems to save you time and energy?

– Ben

PS: If you’re like “what the heck is a smart system?!” then schedule time to time for a (free) coaching call with me.

We’ll discuss where/how you might implement smart systems…as well as other opportunities to boost your productivity + performance. (There’s no charge for this — but be ready to think/work!)

*Forgive this intentional grammar mistake. The correct word should be “ingenious”…I just liked the way “genius” looked and sounded 🙂

Ben Sands

Author Ben Sands

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