Today, 20th February 2016, is MaW SIG Conference day: New Ways of Working for New Ways of Learning. I have nipped down for the day and the venue is thankfully near to Kings Cross-St Pancras, meaning my train got in from Sheffield at 09.30 and I was in very good time to register before it was due to close at 09.55, having picked up a pot of vegan porridge at Pret for breakfast! (I won’t tell you what time I woke up this morning…)
Rachael Roberts kicked off the day with some introductory remarks. She feels the following quote sums up the push to digital: ‘provides a good sense of what the gold-rush must have felt like – people moving into frontier towns with little idea of what they were getting themselves into’. She went on to say that perhaps now the dust has settled, we can start to look at what is going on and the various impacts digital has had. The sessions today will do that from a variety of perspectives.
Very quickly it was time for…
Working smarter, not harder: the nine characteristics of the Productivity Ninja (!)
The first session of the MaW SIG one day conference has an exciting title. Time to learn how to be a ninja!
Graham Alcott started his company, Think Productive in 2009. Says he is not a naturally organised kind of person. The inspiration for this business was going from having a very nice team of people around him to suddenly being freelance and being his own boss. You have to be your own boss and responsible for your own productivity and this forced him to ‘get good at it’! His background is in the charity sector but people were interested in the productivity stuff, which is how it all happened. Turns out quite a few people have been on time management courses, not something I could put my hand up for!
Apparently, a lot of time management books tell you to aim for perfection and everything will be fine. Graham says no one does it perfectly, not even the book writers, but we all have something to teach and something to learn with it. He thinks the idea of time management is dead, but attention management is its successor, and it is much more controllable. He has a book called Productivity Ninja.
The rest of the session was spent looking at the characteristics referred to in the session title.
1. “Zen-like calm”:
If you have a deadline, you know you have to focus on something and finish it by a particular time. You are present and in the moment, not thinking about dinner and social plans. Deadlines give you permission to focus. But what about having that sense of focus without having the stress of the deadline? Well, probably most of us don’t feel that way…
Yet, the mind is for having ideas not holding them. So getting stuff out of your head is key. Hence why writing lists makes you feel better when you have a lot of things to do e.g. pre-going away! Information is raw material. We have moved from the industrial age to the information age. Putting cherries on buns is very predictable, and you know what success looks like. But when we are putting cherries on our own buns, we have to define how big the cake should be, how fast the conveyor belt should go, whether cakes are the way forward or cocktails would be better…
You are simultaneously boss and worker. Neglecting the boss or the worker too much isn’t good for productivity.
Sounds a bit scary but don’t worry. We are talking to-do lists: are you jumping on it or is it 4pm and you are winding down and you are not feeling capable of engaging with it? We probably have 2-3hrs a day of being able to give full attention to something. So we need to be ruthless with how we deal with those 2-3 hours. That time when you are really switched on. If you manage that time/your attention really well, then the rest of the time doesn’t matter so much. That 2-3 hrs done well means you don’t have to be ruthless about giving away an hour later on for a meeting etc. Not every hour is the same in terms of your resources of attention. Know your hours! Graham was ruthless with Facebook. Gave his password to his wife and got her to change it. This was in order to avoid procrastination. Be ruthless with yourself, know your foibles and temptations. Make it impossible to be distracted when it is your 2-3 productive hours.
Use the tools that are most useful to you, don’t be sucked in by coolness. Your thinking is more important. Psychology before technology. But, the Ninja needs a second brain. To download all the projects and actions we need to remember, that are “off the page” in terms of what we are doing/should be doing in the moment. There are many ways to do this!
All these apps are cross-platform and you can download app versions on to your tablets etc.
But the task function in Microsoft Outlook works perfectly well too. Graham likes it. As does…pen and paper! Whatever you are comfortable with. It should be useful, not a distraction… A second brain that frees up your own brain to be creative and ‘add value to information’.
Email can be disproportionately stressful for what’s actually in there. You CAN get it to zero and then it’s easy to keep it there rather than let it build up again. It should give you a sense of completion and clarity, I hear. (I won’t tell Graham I have 24, 638 emails across my inboxes…) Apparently a much smaller number are actually “on the plate” or “critical”! (I guess that’s why I ignore the other 24, 630!)
4. Stealth and camouflage
Tactical hiding. The digital age is starting to become more culturally difficult/unacceptable to be unavailable. “Going dark” is the two days before a new piece of software is launched: developers make themselves deliberately unavailable in that period before the deadline. We need to create that. “Write book” on a to-do list won’t happen. You break it down. But it still needs a different level of focus from everything else. How do you get the space to write the book? Graham went to Sri Lanka…! A month of ‘stealth camouflage’. The idea of disconnection and focusing on stuff without the ‘white noise’ of distraction. (No notifications! No social media! No emails! No other people!) You don’t need to book tickets to Sri Lanka to do that. But you need to find your own Sri Lanka. A sense of complete disconnection even just for an hour (I guess ideally for your 2-3 productive hours of the day?!). Can be as simple as “A meeting for one” in the diary – protected time. Often seen as being a luxury, but it is important. Investing an hour off the grid will probably save you a few hours further down the line.
Very easy, whether in the publishing world or in your car, to look at the competitors and try to copy them. Instead, try to take inspiration from unusual places. E.g. person who goes to the same set of cafes on a rotating basis, cuts down on making the decision of where to eat: recognising decision fatigue as a barrier to productivity. When you have a story to tell or a point to get across, try to view it through different lens e.g. 5 year old child, my mum etc.
Experiments – Graham did a bunch of productivity experiments. E.g. a month of email Fridays – only checking email on Fridays for a month. A month where any procrastination on decision-making was solved by a throw of the dice. Someone said you get a third of your decisions right, a third wrong and a third don’t matter. The dice-throwing gave momentum to the process. What all of the experiments came down to was playing around with the assumptions of how we work and day-to-day routine. Looking at what you do and flipping that. If you always have email etc. turned on, try having it off. If you walk to work a particular way, go a different way. If you look at email in the morning, do it in the evening. We are creatures of habit but messing with it can be a good thing! Doesn’t have to be as extreme as Graham’s experiments, even little things can have a big impact!
The two-minute rule: if anything can be done in less than two minutes, then when it comes in, do it straight away. You will spend more time putting it on lists etc. otherwise! And it also makes your to-do list more streamlined, so you can see the wood from the trees, if you don’t add every single little thing that you could have just done instead. The same applies to email: it’s very easy to delay responding if it is something a bit annoying but just do it quickly and then it’s done. Then if you have something big going on, when you come back to your to-do list afterwards, it’s easier to cope with, less unwieldy.
Context is king: Have different lists. A phone-calls list; a thinking list etc. Set up lists based on context – where you need to be, who needs to be there. So when you get interrupted, you can use the opportunity to tick things off the list that require that person. To-do lists app usually has “context” or “categories”. Use it! Or, different colours, different sections… (This I can do: I have used different colours on my sticky notes since our session at the ELTC on time savers! 🙂 )
Came out of the time spent with the Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka. Graham asked a monk about mindfulness and how to do it, wanting some kind of app recommendation. The monk said “you just sit”. In 2011, Graham including mindfulness in his book was a risk. Nowadays it’s a buzz word. Graham asks, how often do we experience a sense of presence, of where we are, when we are sitting at work?
Lizard brain – the fight or flight part – is an important friend of ours but also a mortal enemy when it comes to productivity. You can have an amazing to-do list, be really organised and still be really scared of pitching your idea. Writing a book is 20% writing and 80% lizard brain management. Lizard brain wants to avoid risk and blend in, not let you put yourself in a place where you won’t survive. Lizard brain is also very critical, “no, that’s rubbish, don’t do that…”. Acknowledging that that is Lizard brain, not rational brain, is important. As, then you can access logical brain whispering away too… It won’t go away but you can focus on your morning routines and be mindful about it. By starting your day on the email/FB etc, you are starting your day with everyone else’s priorities, not your own. Make space to think about YOUR day…
If you are not a naturally organised person, doing all the folders and colour-coding etc seems pointless. But, to be proactive (that New Year’s Resolution!) you need preparedness and mindfulness. “Preparedness is a service to me in the future” 🙂
You need a way of actively managing what you plan to do.
9. Human, not superhero
Recognise that some of this is difficult and you are human. But if you manage your productivity well, you can LOOK like a superhero. Although you are still a human being, no magical powers. There is no secret source or shortcut, you need to do simple things consistently and well. You’ll still screw up but that’s ok. Human beings and ninjas recognise that wrapped up in the culture that we have of need to succeed and be super-heros is failure and guilt about failure. Let it go.
Periodically, have a done list! Have a point to celebrate success. Lists are usually about the past (not done yet…) or the future (needs to be done by Friday, eek!). Looking at what is done is a way to be in the present moment.
The secret to success (according to somebody who’s name I lost!) is “Send thank you cards and book theatre tickets” – As a human being, recognising human connections is important. Say thank you. Book theatre tickets – gives you a constraint. If at 3 you know you are going to the theatre at 7.30, you have a constrained window to complete everything. Life deadlines help you manage the transition between work and life rather than letting work take over.
Graham finished by inviting us to choose one thing to change and do something physical with it (put it on a list…) so that you actually try and do it! I think for me it will be the “disconnect” one (‘Go dark’), to avoid the self-distraction undertaken to avoid having to think! (To quote one of the audience members who also wants to try the “disconnect” one.) I am self-distraction queen sometimes so this should be good. My proactive attention time is definitely first thing in the morning. I was good at using that when I was doing my M.A. – maybe it’s time to get it back! I also want to get back in the habit of starting the day with yoga rather than computer! (I did this morning 🙂 )
The most important gift you can give someone is not your time but your attention – thank you for yours: a lovely ending to the session. 🙂
Little question for my readers: Of all of these tips, which do you think you would want to implement or experiment with in YOUR life?
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Finding my own Sri Lanka! I find that when I work in the same space (my office) I lose motivation and creativity after a while. The minute I pack up my computer and go somewhere else for a couple hours, it all comes flooding back. Now I just need to keep reminding myself of this and make the effort of finding new spaces to work in!
Thanks for the post 🙂
Thanks for posting this. I have no idea how I missed the advertising for this; it would have been great because I don’t think I’ll be able to get to B’ham–it’s during term time.
I’ll be doing a lot of material creation/adaptation over the next 3 months, so am interested in as many new ideas as possible.
(I’m easily amused–we have the same WP theme, and very similar header images!)
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Love this! Thanks for the write-up and for the great blog. I definitely need to invest some time and effort into these techniques being a queen procrastinator myself. Its nice to hear productivity ninjas aren’t born that way (and no excuses now!) I’ll put these on my to do list…
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