Making space: My new productivity rules of the road

24/1/2012 |

In a previous post ‘A love letter to being human’ I talked about my experiences of solitude whilst writing my book and the productivity benefits of REALLY eliminating distractions and reconnecting with being human and all our human foibles. I’ve come back from my trip with a renewed determination to be a productivity ninja, walking the talk, practising what I spend so much time preaching (!) and upping my game.

So I thought I’d share with you my new rules for life and work. Like most things that increase productivity, the changes I’ve made are not rocket science: they’re really common sense principles that are just not commonly applied.

Someone said to me on twitter recently that they had no problem thinking productively, the problem was in the doing. Doing things differently involves conscious effort and can use up valuable energy. As humans, we often struggle with change. That is, of course, until you embed those changes to become brilliant new habits. Indeed, as Aristotle once said “Excellence is not an act, but a habit”.

Why do I need rules?

I have no boss. This, for me, is dangerous. My natural style is that I hate detail, I follow my instincts not always what’s best for me, I hate feeling boxed in and I get distracted easily it’s what’s new, what’s fun and what’s more exciting than what I really need to be doing. So for me, a set of rules that I can instinctively follow helps me to embed new and productive habits. I sussed this out a few years ago and I’d been tinkering with my own rules ever since. But I think somewhere along the line I got a bit stuck in my ways and let bad habits develop.

I’m only about 2 weeks into this new routine, with its new rules, but already I’ve started to feel profound productivity benefits. Your new rules might not need to be as drastic as this, but hopefully you can take some inspiration.

Rule 1: “Do less.”
I’m going into ruthless overdrive to reduce what I commit to. This has been really hard. Last year I was sitting on 3 charity trustee boards and was also involved in a couple of other start-ups. I’ve now resigned from 2 of those 3 boards. Both are organisations that I love deeply. One I helped set up from scratch, I’ve been there 6 years, we’ve had loads of successes, we’ve changed lives and it feels so much a part of me. But sometimes it’s just time to let go. Change is a natural thing, to be celebrated not feared. The other one I always said would be a short-term trustee role, to help them get a board established, get funding coming in and increase the profile. It feels like they’re miles ahead of schedule now and no longer need me but also I’m leaving just as we get to enjoy that success. I’ll miss the parties, but I don’t get involved in these things for parties and awards, I get involved to add value and create impact. So I’m moving on.

I’m so used to spreading myself thinly and working on a hundred things at a time that it feels intuitively very strange to just be creating space, not knowing exactly what will fill it. But it feels like the right thing to do and I’m following my hunches.

Rule 2: “Only 2 London days a month”
I’m limiting my trips to London that do not involve me running workshops there to two days a month. This saves on tiring travel time and introduces some scarcity into my decision-making about where I spend my time and attention: So if you ask me for a coffee in London and I come back suggesting a phone call instead, it’s not that I don’t love you, it’s just me honing in on keeping my focus.

Rule 3: “Starting well”
I’ve never really been a morning person (particularly if I’m already generally feeling tired), but this rule is designed to gently nudge me in that direction. 7am – 9am is now for four specific things:

– Meditation
– Gym/exercise
– Hearty breakfasts
– Consuming limited information of my own choosing: Twitter, Facebook, news and of course the football gossip column on the BBC website.

Making sure I give myself time to wake up, fuel-up and warm-up is important to ensuring the success of rule 4!

Rule 4: “9am – 1pm is Big Rock time”
This is the big one. At 9am, I no longer go to the office. I’m home alone – and I ‘go dark’. One of the key traits of a productivity ninja is stealth. So I lie low, keep off everyone else’s radar and really focus. 9am until 1pm is my time to tackle the difficult stuff, the detail stuff that needs full attention and the stuff that is ruined by distractions. For me, this is Excel spread sheets, writing, thinking, workshop planning, PowerPoint creation, ANYTHING related to finance and a few other bits and pieces. These are my ‘big rocks’, as described in the story Steven Covey tells in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

My internet connection is on a time-switch, so at 9am it switches itself off. The world outside the window no longer exists. No emails, no twitter, no potential web-surfing.

You’d be surprised how hard this is to keep to – both mentally and practically. It’s always really tempting to get sucked back in and in the early days of trying this, before I really started to see the pay-offs, I cheated by using my travel dongle to cunningly break my own rule. Practically, it’s hard too because you can get online in so many different ways – yes, my home wifi is my main route onto the internet, but I have the aforementioned travel dongle, I have 3G on my iPad, (crap) 3G on my Blackberry and there are even neighbours with open wifi connections that zone in and out of my range. It’s actually quite hard to choose not to be connected. Sociologically, I can see a future where not only will it be hard to be offline, but it might also be viewed as suspicious (“why would you NOT want to be connected?”).

My phone is on silent during this time, too. I have voicemail and I can still see who’s calling, but I leave it un-answered for the most part. I recently used a major price comparison website to change my car insurance and despite unticking every box, the bastards sold my phone number to all and sundry (I’m pretty convinced illegally but I have no proof so won’t name them! Lesson learned.). So working like this in the last 2 weeks has probably saved me 20 minutes of actual interruption time and an hour or two of recovery time from these interruptions by me missing those unnecessary, unwanted, unrequested calls.

The only exception to my phonecall rule is the team’s 9.40 ‘Daily Huddle’. This is a useful, 15 minute interruption because it allows me to cover off any urgent office issues very quickly and efficiently – and my hope and expectation is that both I and the team will prepare for this even more so now that we know it’s the only opportunity we have to speak until 2pm.

Rule5: “Lunch is not for wimps”
I’m pretty good at making sure I eat throughout the day, but the idea here is to take a full hour for lunch, really to try and switch out of work mode. This is surprisingly hard. I remember leaving my CEO job and starting consulting at a place where they took a full hour for lunch. On the first day, I called my wife and said “Help! I really don’t know what to do with an hour for lunch”. It’s not something I’m used to, but I’m trying to stick to it. Some days I win, some days I lose. Ninjas are human, not superheroes.

Rule 6: “Office time is for the office, not for me”
I realised that last year, the office was no longer working for me. I mean, obviously the people in the office were, but somehow it was no longer a place that I could personally rely on to give me the focus I needed. And there are still things within Think Productive UK that only I can do and I can’t delegate to others, so until that changes (and I’m working on it!), I need a new strategy. So whilst I plan to cover off all of my big rocks in the morning, I also proactively plan to ‘do’ very little in the office. I go to the office not to do my work, but to help the team do theirs. My job from 2-5pm is really just to be available. So my office time is meetings (see rule 7!), processing my email, being available and helping out.

Rule 7: “Don’t meet, do”
I’m cutting down on meetings. I realised at the end of last year we were developing a tendency towards short but unnecessary meetings in the office. We have 3 or 4 regular recurring meetings that are really useful, but beyond these, most requests for meetings are really just a symptom of me or others delaying decisions, or us as a team not being clear on who ‘owns’ a particular project or has the autonomy to just take action. I think a lot of this bad habit developed because I was tired during the autumn and wasn’t on top form to make more ruthless and decisive decisions. So my new rule is to say no to meetings and ensure we find another way.

Rule 8: “Be kind to myself”
OK, so here’s where I hold my hands up. I just wrote a book about the importance of recovery in managing your attention, the importance of good periods of rest in managing your energy and the importance of sleep in managing your body. In the last few years, I haven’t been particularly good at any of this stuff. I’m not good at taking breaks. I’m literally restless. So now I’m structuring my days to provide variety, sticking to Think Productive UK’s 4 day working weeks (giving me most Fridays off) and resisting the temptation to do anything resembling work at weekends (except weekly reviews if I’m on the train to Aston Villa games).

Rule 9: “Consume less.”
I’ve always been pretty good at avoiding the consumerist cycle of instant gratification, debt, misery, instant gratification, repeat. But there’s still a huge load of things in my flat that I don’t need and I’ve been clearing them out and making my local charity shop VERY happy in recent weeks. But my ‘consume less’ rule is also about information consumption: I haven’t bought a newspaper this year, I’ve turned off my news radio, I’m keeping Twitter to a minimum (but definitely NOT setting up automated tweets – please, will people stop doing that!), I don’t think I’ve seen an hour of TV this year. I’m being conscious of what I’m ignoring instead of falling into the trap of endless information consumption and potential low-value distraction. I’m keeping things simple. Ignorance is indeed bliss.

Rule 10: “Make space.”
Our attention is limited. Everything we do, everything we consume, everything we own, everything we commit to, everything we put our attention on all takes us away from something else. Every decision a compromise. Many of the rules above are really about making space – more time, more attention, more energy, more focus. We need space to think, to breathe and to create. We need space to make things happen.

I’m making space and those are my new rules of the road. So if you tried to contact me this morning and haven’t heard back from me yet… well, now you know why. I am indeed deliberately ignoring you. I’ll be getting back to you later and I’m sure the world won’t end in the meantime. Just please don’t take it personally.

I’m making the space I need to create things. And I’m not going to start apologising for that.


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