Posts in "Life Lessons"

How to double your productivity and work less (really)

Favourite book of the year alert: Deep Work by Cal Newport

If you read it and apply only a few of the strategies, I bet you’ll at least double your productivity and work less. Quite a claim I know – stick with me.

What is deep work? Cal Newport describes it as:

Deep Work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task

Stop and think about that. When is the last time you worked like that for at least an hour? How many hours a day fall into that category? Be honest with yourself.

If you’re anything like me, very few. Even those hours are spent fighting urges to be distracted – email, web surfing, twitter, talking or texting a friend, making a cup of tea, tidying workspaces etc.

It’s a subject I’m fascinated by. I ditched my smartphone a while back. I don’t use Facebook. I wake early. I try hard to restrict email and twitter to a 30 minute window each day. I sometimes avoid the internet on a Saturday. I try to avoid any computer or phone use after 9PM.

You’ll notice I said ‘try’ and ‘sometimes’ a lot. It’s hard and I don’t always get it right – less than 50% of the time. But, I’m moving the right way.

Why bother? Why not just chill and be normal? Give into the distraction, it’s harmless. I don’t think it is. I think it eats away at ambition, productivity and a good life. Life is short. Time spent doing unuseful things, is time not spent on what’s important.

I was first introduced to deep work and how powerful it was by reading Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. The book examines the working routines of more than a hundred and sixty of the greatest philosophers, writers, composers and artists ever to have lived. I was surprised by how few hours people worked – yet many were wildly productive. I found it hard to believe, but I get it now. Just a few hours of deep work each day adds up to significant output each year. Most of us are lucky to grab just a couple of hours per week.

Back to Deep Work. It made me realise I can do much better. It gave useful strategies for working deeply more often. And it motivated me to keep pushing to get better,

Below are some of my insights:

  • Waking up early is important. It’s a great time to do deep work. I use the first hour of the day to do mobility exercises, meditate and write. If I didn’t take advantage of the early hours, they wouldn’t happen consistently.
  • 90 min blocks feel about the right length for deep work. They should be scheduled into the day. Avoid distractions. Focus on one thing. Aim for two or three blocks a day.
  • Now and again, take 2-3 days and isolate yourself. Maybe rent a remote place. Use it to work deeply on something that’s important to you.
  • Think about the best way to incorporate deep work blocks into your life. It’ll be different for everyone. I think my ideal day would look like this:

    • 5-6am: wake, mobility, meditate & write (hour for me)
    • 6-7am: shower, get ready and into work
    • 7-9am: plan the day. 1 x 90 min deep work block
    • 1 or 2 more deep work blocks during the day
    • stop working by 6pm at the latest. Sometimes as early as 4pm.
  • If I need to make a lot of progress on something quickly, this might work:

    • 4.30am: wake and mobility exercises (my non-negotiable habit)
    • 4:45am – 5:30am: shower, get ready and into work
    • 5.30am – 9:00am: plan the day. 2 x 90 min deep work blocks
  • Deep work is hard and mentally draining. 3-6 hours a day is probably the upper limit for most. Doing shallow work between is fine, and often necessary. Separating the two is what’s important.
  • Shutdown rituals help you separate work from leisure. When you work, work hard and smart. When you’re done, you’re done – avoid work entirely. This includes thinking about it. Having a ritual allows you to get closure. Think about what makes you feel like you can switch off. e.g. clearing inbox, making a plan for outstanding issues / the next day, an activity that is the sign of the transition from work to leisure etc.
  • Don’t get tempted to do shallow work, when you should be resting (usually evenings). It will be low concentration, low quality work. It’s not worth the tradeoff. You need to re-charge for the next day’s deep work.
  • Controlling your time spent on social media, internet and email is hard. You need rules and restrictions. You have to be disciplined. Aim for small windows of use, amongst larger blocks of focus.
  • Don’t feel guilty about leisure time. Your subconscious is at work during this time and that’s valuable. Often the greatest insights come during leisure time, or just after it.
  • Take advantage of dead time – walks, shower, commute etc. You can use it to solve problems in your head, plan stuff etc.

I want to finish with a quick personal story.

When I look back at when I felt the most productive, it was 2011 and 2012. I was working at Jagex and I would often arrive at work at 5am. It would mean getting up at 4am. I would spend the first half an hour planning out an awesome day and clearing the inbox. I spent the next 3 hours working on projects and thinking things through. Mostly, before anyone arrived.

It gave me an advantage over others. Most people would arrive at 9am and start frantically checking their inbox (lots of early emails from me!). Then they would rush to their first meeting. I could see that most people were starting the day without a plan and were backpedaling from the get go. They were struggling to catch even an hour of focused work. I put a lot of my productivity down to my early morning focus.

Deep work requires self discipline and routines. It requires a commitment to winning the war of distractions. If you do it, you’ll have a huge competitive advantage over everyone else.

P.S thanks to Nate for introducing me toDeep Work and sending me a copy.


What do you think or do differently to mostly everyone else?

I’ve been watching some of the early Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes recently and theres no two ways about it — Larry David certainly thinks and does things differently to mostly everyone else.

It got me thinking, is that really such a bad thing?

Ok, so you might not want to replicate Larry David’s approach to life (although it’s an entertaining way to consume time). But, if you think or do some things differently to mostly everyone else, it means you’re consciously not taking a path that the majority expects of you. It makes you interesting and unique. It makes you stand out a little — and that’s a good thing.

I would say nearly all of the people I think are successful and interesting, tend not to follow a normal path — or they have several things about them that are unusual. It might be something they believe, that others would mostly disagree with. A habit or hobby that is different to the norm. Maybe they take unusual risks. But there is always something unique about how they think and act.

Off the top of my head, here are a few:

  • Jason Lengstorf sold everything he owned and has been traveling the world and working remotely for nearly two years.
  • Steve Jobs dressed in an unusual way, wearing the same outfit mostly every day — new balance trainers, jeans and a black roll neck.
  • Wim Hof has some unusual disease prevention and fitness habits. He takes ice baths, practices extreme breathing, swims long distances under polar ice and climbs Everest in nothing more than a pair of shorts.
  • Mark Zuckerberg & Bill Gates made risky decisions early in their career and dropped out of top colleges to start businesses.
  • Richard Branson had an unusual approach to impressing his girlfriend. He bought an island (that he couldn’t afford at the time).
  • Alastair Humphreys set off on his bike one day and ended up cycling around the world. It only took him four years.
  • Benjamin Franklin started his day in a way unlike the majority. He would take an ‘air’ bath, which involved opening the windows of his house and then sitting in front of the window naked, to get the full effects of the fresh air.
  • Nate Green works a very focused and productive ~ 4 hours a day and spends the rest of his day away from the computer, not doing work.

It got me thinking. What is it that I think or do, that other people would consider unusual?

  • I ditched my smartphone for a Nokia 130.
  • I’m not on Facebook.
  • I wake up very early. At the moment about 5:30am, but in the past I would wake at 4:00am and be in the office for 6am.
  • I’m a minimalist. I own fewer things than most people and am constantly throwing things away — normally to the dismay of Ella (usually because I’ve throw something out that she wanted to keep!).
  • I stick to a paleo diet — so don’t eat dairy, grains, legumes or processed food (well, for the most part!)
  • I don’t own a microwave. I think they look cumbersome and ugly.
  • I have zero interest in politics and don’t vote. I also do my best to ignore news.
  • I chose to step out of a high paid career to pursue a life with more freedom (this is a work in progress).

Ok, not all of the above are overly unusual, and I certainly stray from them now and again. But, they do tend to put me in the minority.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t confined to people, it also applies to companies. When you’re looking for a company to work for, I think it’s useful to look for things that they do differently than most other companies.

Again, it might be a view they have, something about their culture, the CEO, the way they work, how they are structured etc. Beware of gimmicks though. I’ve seen some companies stand out, but only because stand outing was a specific strategy to attract talent. It wasn’t genuine.

Basecamp is a good example of a company doing a number of things genuinely differently. One that jumps to mind is they work 4-day weeks from May through to August. How cool is that? They don’t do it because it sounds cool, they do it because they believe it works for them.

What do you think or do differently to mostly everyone else?

Back to the title of the post. What do you think or do differently to mostly everyone else?

If you can’t come up with anything, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. But, it might be a sign that you don’t experiment with things outside of the norm very often. And sometimes it’s the things outside of the norm that can add surprising value to your life.

Food for thought.. 🙂


Book review: When Breath Becomes Air

I read ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi last week and it was awesome. I loved it so much, I finished it the same day.

Paul was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in his thirties, just as he was about to complete his training as a neurosurgeon. With the blink of an eye, he went from doctor to patient – just as everything he had worked so hard for was starting to come full circle.

The book is a reflection on his career and how he faced his illness and mortality. The surgery stories are just mind-boggling. I can’t get my head around how surgeons approach long, risky operations with a sense of normality. It makes you appreciate how gifted and special they are.

The braveness and selflessness with which Paul coped with his illness is inspiring. You have to read the book to get a real sense of it.

I’m also envious of how good the writing is. It’s deeply personal and easy to read, which must have been so hard to write. He effortlessly moves between being funny and dealing with devastating setbacks. The writing is so good, you often feel like you’re in the room with him.

I’m finding myself thinking about a few things after reading When Breath Becomes Air:

Paul left behind a wife and an eight-month-old daughter. The moments he savored with his daughter before he passed were incredibly moving. I could feel myself welling up, and even as I write this, it feels uncomfortable. My daughter Fearne is nine months and I couldn’t begin to think about not being a part of her life with Ella over the coming few decades. It made me think about being grateful for what I have and savouring my own moments with them even more.

I’ve also found myself reflecting on being a good person and living a good life. If I was asked ‘what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Paul Kalanithia?’ – I would say ‘he was a good man’. I would like for people to think that about me.

One of my favourite all time books and highly recommended.

Here are a few links for further reading:

Paul Kalanithi – Wikipedia
PaulKalanithi.com (his interviews and essays are grouped here)


The rise of reading online (and a brilliant article recommendation)

I read a lot of online essays and blog posts. In fact, I read the equivalent of 24 books last year (estimated by Pocket):

Email sent to me by Pocket in January 2016.

Considering I read 27 books in 2015, that’s close to half of my entire reading done online. It’s all free too, I don’t pay for any content subscriptions.

I would guess that a couple of years ago it would have been about 25% and before that, almost exclusively books. It feels representative of a broader trend towards online reading.

The quality of content available online is just staggering. For me, it’s at least on par with books. I get a much better return for my time when reading online. One of the reasons for this is my obsession with efficient content discovery. It’s very noisy out there. If you’re not careful you can spend more time looking for useful content, than reading it. Twitter and a handful of high quality newsletters surfaces all of my online reading — about a handful of great pieces every day.]

Yesterday my friend Nate Green published a fantastic piece — How to write a million words — on a slacker’s schedule. It’s an example of the type of content I read every day.

I think it’s one of his best yet and I got five valuable learnings / reminders from it. Each one will make an immediate impact on my life:

focused work blocks — this was a great reminder that a few hours of intense focus can give you an enormous amount of output and quality. Often more than working twice as many hours in an unfocused way. The concept of setting work blocks, being clear about what you will do and avoiding distractions is really smart. I’m going to start doing this.

permission to finish early — I thought it was awesome how Nate wraps up mid afternoon and then switches off for the rest of the day. He uses it for exercise, seeing friends and relaxing — with the peace of mind that he has done enough for the day. In fact, probably more than most who work long into the evening (because of the focused work blocks). What an amazing way to juggle work and life balance. After focused periods of doing, I’m going to start giving myself permission to switch off earlier in the day.

restricting email and social — Nate only checks email and social after his final work block, restricting it to half an hour. I’ve tried restricting email until after midday, but didn’t stick with it. I also like the concept of checking during a defined period, once per day. Since ditching my smartphone I’ve got a lot better at my email / social addiction. But recently I’ve noticed some of that addiction creeping onto the laptop. To re-take control, I’m going to check email and social in the same way Nate does. Once per day and only after doing important things.

send to kindle — I didn’t know you could send web content to a kindle. Amazing! I use pocket to save articles for reading later and it works great. I’ve used it nearly every day for many years and confess to being a pocket fanboy. I sent a few articles to the kindle yesterday and it was surprisingly refreshing to read them away from the laptop. There is far less chance of distraction. I’m going to trial ‘send to kindle’ instead of pocket for a week to see how it feels. I think I will switch over after the week, but we’ll see.

daily planning the night before — taking some time out to think through and plan the day is one of my oldest and most useful habits. It’s part of my morning routine. I’ve recently started to think that it might be nicer to shift it to the night before. For a start it’s on my mind as soon as I wake up and I can’t seem to relax until I have the day mapped out. It would be nice to just get up and do non planning things for my first hour. At the moment that’s mobility, gratitude and learning french. I’ve wanted to do an evening routine for a while now, so I will use it as an opportunity to put one into action. I’m going to do some mobility exercises and plan the next day as my new evening routine. Then, hit the sack with the peace of mind I know what tomorrow will look like.

As you can see, five valuable insights. I rarely get that level of insight / learnings from a book. And Nate’s article took 5 mins to read and was free.
I’m not sure I have a conclusion to this post, other than observing the rise of quality online content and the impact it has on ones life. Getting content discovery working for you is an important part of the equation.

PS — go read go and read Nate’s excellent post 🙂

PPS —I’ve just started using Blinkist. It’s a platform with over a thousand best-selling nonfiction books, each one condensed into a 15 minute read. They have a send to kindle feature too 😉 I haven‘t got into it enough to recommend it yet, but watch this space :).

Wait, our whole life is just a firefly blinking once in the night?

It’s not often something stops me in my tracks because it resonates so deeply. But, it happened yesterday.

It came from Tim Ferriss’s latest podcast with Naval Ravikant (CEO and a co-founder of AngelList and successful investor). Naval was back to answer ten questions from listeners and he took on one about a life insight he has.

It was so awesome and I’m going to remember it when I find myself worrying too much about the future.

I transcribed that part of it below. I highly recommend listening to the whole thing. It’s only an hour long and it’s excellent.


Q: What insight about life have you acquired that seems obvious to you, but might not be obvious to everyone else?

Naval: This one is a tough one, its a deep question. I do have one fundamental, recent belief that I’ve acquired in the last few years that I don’t think most people would agree with. But it’s such a personal thing and it came about in such personal circumstances that I’m not sure anyone else will get there in the same line of reasoning. That said, I’ll lay it out anyway.

Which is, I’m not afraid of death anymore. And I think a lot of the struggle that we have in life comes from a deep, deep fear of death. And it can take form in many ways. One can be that we want to write the great American novel, or we really want to achieve something in this world, we want to build something, we want to build a great piece of technology or we want to start an amazing business or we want to run for office and make a difference.

And a lot of that just comes from sort of this fear that we’re going to die, so we have to build something that lasts beyond us. Obviously also the obsession that parents have with their children. I mean a lot of that is warranted and biological love, but some of that is also the quest for immortality. Even some of the beliefs or some of the more outlandish parts of organized religion, I think fall into that.

And I don’t have that quest for immortality anymore. And I think I came to this fundamental conclusion. I thought about it a lot and the Universe has been around for a long time. The Universe is a very, very large place. If you study even the smallest bit of science, you’ll realise that for all practical purposes, we are nothing. We’re like, we are amoeba. We’re bacteria to the Universe. We’re basically monkeys on a small rock, orbiting a small backwards star in a huge galaxy which is in an absolutely staggering gigantic Universe which itself is likely part of a gigantic multi-verse.

And this universe has been around probably for ten billion years or more and will be around for tens of billions of years afterwards. So your existence, my existence is just infinitesimal.

It’s like a firefly blinking once in the night. So we’re not really here very long and we don’t really matter that much. And nothing that we do lasts. So eventually you will fade. Your works will fade. Your children will fade. Your thoughts will fade. This planet will fade. The sun will fade. It will all be gone. There are entire civilizations that we just remember now with one or two words. Like Samarian or Mayan. Do you know any Samarians or Mayans? Do you hold any of them in high regard or esteem? Have they outlived their natural life span somehow? No.

So I think we’re just here for an extremely short period of time. Now from here you can choose to believe in an afterlife or not. And if you really do believe in an afterlife, then that should give you comfort and make you realize that maybe everything that goes on in this life is not that consequential.

On the other hand if you don’t believe in an afterlife, then you should also come to a similar conclusion which you realize that this is such a short and precious life, that it’s really important that you don’t spend it being unhappy. There is no excuse for spending most of your life in misery. You’ve only got seventy years out of the fifty billion or so that the universe is going to be around. Whatever your natural state is, it’s probably not this. This is your living state, your dead state. It’s true over a much longer time frame. So when I think about the world that way, I sort of realize that it’s just kind of a game. Which is not say that you go to a dark place and you start acting unethically and unmorally – quite the contrary.

You realize just how precious life is and how it’s important to make sure that you enjoy yourself, you sleep well at night, you’re a good moral person, you’re generally happy, you take care of other people, you help out. But you can’t take it too seriously, you can’t get too hung up over it, you can’t make yourself miserable and unhappy over it. You just have a very short period of time here on this Earth. Nothing you do is going to matter that much in the long run. Don’t take yourself so seriously. And then that just kind of helps make everything else work.

So yeah. That’s that’s an insight about life that I’ve acquired that now seems obvious to me. But it’s really not I think obvious to most people.


Check out the full podcast here.