How to Train Your Demons
Reading interviews with celebrities/ authors is very instructive.
Please tell us what a productivity ninja is.
We use the term quite playfully, of course, but the idea is about ruthlessly and mindfully cutting through all the information overload and stress we face, and developing calmer, more efficient ways of working. We originally started using the term a few years ago in my business, Think Productive, because we wanted a way of telling our clients that “we’re different and we’re passionate” but also, we decided to be deliberately playful in our approach to work because being playful is the opposite of being stressed — and that’s what a lot of our clients suffer from. So my definition of a productivity ninja is someone who is passionately and effectively engaged in the work they’re doing — and of course, following and demonstrating the nine characteristics of the Productivity Ninja that I talk about in my book.
How would you describe your latest book?
A lot of people have described How to be a Productivity Ninja as their “instruction manual” for work and life. That was really my intention when writing it: to write a book that people could come back to again and again, and one that would mix some of the higher level mindset with the deeply practical business of getting unstuck, organised and in control. There’s a whole chapter that takes you through how to get back in control of your emails step by step and get your inbox to zero, there are four chapters that cover basically how to get in control of all your projects, actions and commitments, and then there are chapters on mindset, procrastination, meetings, project management and so on. But ultimately it’s all very practical, uncomplicated stuff that’s easy to follow and implement.
What makes you different from a management guru?
Well, I start the book by saying “I’m not a guru”, and that a Productivity Ninja is a human, not a superhero. Yes, a productivity ninja can develop a great mindset and use good tools, but they’re still a human being first. I think there are too many gurus who promote what I call the ‘perfection-myth’ and basically people buy their books or go to their talks to indulge in a fantasy of their own lives being perfect, because they think the guru’s life is perfect. But the truth is that no one has ever been perfect and pretending it’s possible is often what stops people from actually making the changes they need to make in their own lives. It’s better to start by saying, “We’re all flawed, we all screw up sometimes” and then work from there. It’s just more honest and practical. I’m still learning all this stuff as much as I teach it. I kept getting asked to teach productivity to people because of my own battles turning myself from a deeply and naturally disorganised and very flaky person into a Productivity Ninja, but I still screw it up from time to time, and that’s to be celebrated as it proves I’m human!
Social networking sites are indispensable today. How do you use them for constructive pursuits?
That’s an interesting one. It depends what kind of constructive pursuit you mean. Let’s talk business, but this could equally be true of hobbies or other pursuits… So as a business tool, something like Twitter can be really valuable, but I see it more as a listening platform than a talking one — so using the search function is a great way to find out what people are saying about your brand, or about your subject matter, or about anything you’re interested in, really. There’s something extremely powerful about being able to search, in real time, what people are saying about a particular word or phrase or subject. I don’t think we truly appreciate that. It can tell you a lot about what your customers are really thinking. Obviously there are lots of other tools like LinkedIn and Facebook, which I think can be great for developing awareness of brands and so on, but there are great experts like Gary Vaynerchuk who are far better qualified than I am on that front.
But here’s what I think is the great paradox of the internet: you have all of the world’s information on your fingertips, so it’s singlehandedly the biggest productivity tool and the biggest productivity killer. I’m very wary of my social media and internet use, especially when I’m in the writing-mode. I talk in the book about Ninja Stealth — the ability to get ‘off the grid’ where you can’t be constantly contacted and interrupted — isolation is often an important part of the creative process. I actually left Facebook a few months back when I was writing a new book, and haven’t gotten round to reactivating my account yet.
I’m sure I will, but to be honest I’m enjoying the break from all the temptations and interruptions it brings (as well as missing a few friends who I only see on there, obviously). Previously, I also used an app to block Facebook on my computer during work hours, which helped give me the focus I needed.
You recommend one to learn to say no and occasionally break rules. Please suggest how a usually gullible and susceptible person can attune herself to saying no.
Well, saying no is really hard, but a really important part of productivity. I think it starts with developing a ruthless mindset around your own attention: you can’t manage time, but you can manage your attention, and in particular you should ruthlessly protect what I call ‘proactive attention’ — those times in the day where your energy and attention is at its highest and you can achieve the hardest tasks on your to-do list. So start with mindset. And then it’s important to remember that saying yes to something not on your to-do list is actually saying no to something that is on your to-do list — so the clearer you are with what’s on your plate at any time, the easier it is to have those important things in mind when you’re tempted to say yes to something new.
I also think that people generally really respect it when you say no to something and disappoint them at the beginning, rather than overcommitting by saying yes and then disappointing later and for longer. I always want to please people, so I’m constantly battling my temptation to say yes to everything — and I definitely still say yes to too many things, but developing that Ninja Ruthlessness has meant I’m much more in control of this than I used to be!
You also suggest that one need not be an early adopter and observe others at first. But in a work environment, will this habit not rob a person of initiating projects and ideas?
It depends. I’m always a late adopter when it comes to technology. I want to know something really works and works well before I adopt it. Let the enthusiasts iron out all the problems with it, and then they can enthusiastically tell me how it works later! There’s no less productive a place than the queue at the Apple store when on a similar note, being first with new ideas and being a pioneer at work actually take a lot more effort to achieve the same results as someone doing that same thing second or third, so it’s about being strategic about the times when you need to be known as the pioneer or trailblazer versus the times when you’re happy to let someone else take the glory but also do more of the heavy-lifting.
How would you suggest an extremely introverted person to open up among colleagues at work?
Well, whenever I’ve done personality tests, I always come out as more introverted than extroverted and I think lots of workplace cultures are built for extroverts not introverts, so this is an interesting question. I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘opening up’ — I’d say that forcing introverts to ‘open up’ may actually harm their productivity! Personally, I’m always alone when I do my best work or have my best ideas and I wouldn’t want to change that. But if you mean ‘communicate a problem’, then I’d say introverts are most comfortable communicating to one or two people rather than a big group, so start there. And contrary to popular belief, introverts are neither shy nor bad communicators — in fact, I’ve found when chairing boards that when an introvert finally says something about the issue, you often find it’s the most perceptive thing that’s said all day because they’ve been listening and thinking rather than just waiting for their turn to talk!
What has been your most challenging drawback and how did you fight it?
When I was setting up Think Productive, it was 2009 and the UK’s economy was in a deep recession. In hindsight, setting up a corporate training business at a time when no company had the money to pay for training wasn’t my greatest decision, but everyone seemed to think the recession would blow over pretty quickly. Of course, we know now they were wrong, but it meant the first two or three years were a real struggle. I basically paid everyone except myself for a long time and even had to lend the business my savings just so it survived. Thankfully we came through it, we continue to grow and we’re now operating all around the world. I don’t really know what the secret was, other than being very thrifty and having a lot of determination and patience. I think patience and ‘delated gratification’ is one of the most underrated traits amongst entrepreneurs, particularly those just starting out.
Please suggest some basic ideas for our readers to be organised in this age of information overload.
Well firstly, buy my book! But let’s look at five very practical things you can do. Realise that your ‘proactive attention’ — the time when you’re at the peak of your powers of productivity — is two to three hours every day. So start by being mindful of when you’re at your best, and schedule the most difficult work at these times. By the same token, there’s always stuff you can do when your attention levels are very low, so the trick is to save up the filing, the deleting of emails, the online purchases and so on, for when you’re capable of not much else.
Leading on from this, categorise your to-do list based on attention level and where you need to be, rather than just grouping tasks together by projects. One of the biggest productivity killers is being interrupted, so protect some time in your day and in your week where you can work uninterrupted. This means switching off your emails once in a while, and even spending time completely offline (when I’m working from home, I often turn my internet connection off at the wall so that I can really focus).
Deal with procrastination. It happens due to four main reasons and I use the acronym ‘DUST’ to remember this: you’re either procrastinating because the thing is difficult, it’s undefined, it’s scary, or it’s tedious. So work out which of those four things is behind your procrastination, and often that diagnosis is enough to help you get unstuck. In general terms, people don’t spend enough time defining the work, which means being really clear about what should happen next, and not enough time confronting and being mindful about the stuff that’s scary.
Regularly review where you’re up to. I have a checklist that I run through every day and a longer one I run through every week that just asks me good questions like where am I up to with each project, what’s important today or this week, where is my energy at, what am I scared of, what’s dragging me down or taking up too much time and so on. Asking yourself good questions, regularly, helps me stay focused and as a result, to feel present and calm about my work.
Which productivity apps do you use? Please recommend some for our readers.
I recommend at the very least getting yourself a good web-based to-do list app. There are lots like Toodledo and Todoist that are quite cheap. I use one called Nozbe that is a bit more expensive, but it’s worth it to me because it’s so user-friendly and it saves me a lot of stress — a Ninja needs a ‘Second Brain’ because we know our own brains aren’t great at holding onto all that information. I also think changing your relationship with email if it causes you the remotest bit of stress is vital. There’s a whole chapter in the book where I advocate and walk through the process to reduce your inbox to zero. That’s something that helps me clear my mind of the clutter. And of course there are loads of other cool tools. A couple of my favourites? Headspace for meditation, Jot to capture ideas really fast, Hootsuite to manage all my social media in one place and Xero to manage all my finances.