Posts in "Personal Development"

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.. 🙂


Be remarkable at something

I just finished So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. It’s easily the best thing I’ve read this year.

It’s not too long and very easy to read. I found myself nodding at mostly everything in it. The timing was perfect, as I’ve just had some breakthroughs of my own in respect to my career and life. This book helped set some things straight.

The key argument in the book is that skills are more important than passion when it comes to finding work you love. In fact, trying to find your ‘calling’ or follow a passion can be terrible advice.

Sure, some people become passionate about something early in their life and it’s obvious they should follow their dream. It’s common to hear professional athletes say they knew from an early age, exactly what they wanted to be. My gut tells me that this type of situation is very rare – less than one percent.

What’s more common is that we bumble through life and settle on something. We get there almost randomly. If we’re lucky, we fall in love with it – or at least like it. But, some of us end up not liking what we do – or worse, hating it.

So, if we’re not to follow our passion, what should we do?

Cal Newport’s advice is to become really good at something. Pick something you like, that seems interesting, and then focus on becoming remarkable at it. At first, don’t worry whether it’s your ‘calling’ or if you’re passionate about it.

Becoming good at something takes time, patience and focused practice. You need to put in the work. I know that sounds obvious, but how many people do you think relentlessly attack something with the goal of becoming remarkable at it? What percentage of them follow through? You’ll be in the minority, I promise you. And as a result, you’ll stand out in a sea of average people. It’s a competitive advantage that’s surprisingly easy to have.

Once you become really good at something, a couple of things start to happen. Firstly, you’ll notice you get more autonomy and control (itself, an important part of being happy). Secondly, you get leverage.

But what to do with that leverage?

Let’s say you’re happy with the work you’re doing – even passionate about it. It’s ok to stay in that place. You earned the autonomy, freedom and interesting work. Maybe you can use your leverage to get even more freedom. You might persuade your boss or company to reduce your working hours for the same pay. Maybe negotiate a more flexible set up – a better schedule, more holidays or a sabbatical. You’ll be surprised how far people are willing to bend to retain remarkable people.

Just know that taking this route will probably mean at some point, turning down promotions. That will be hard to do. You’ll likely have to walk away from more pay and a path people expect you to take, in order to keep hold of your freedom. Do so knowing that this path will ultimately make you less happy and less passionate – even with more pay. Have the self-awareness to know what makes you happy and stick with it. Being happy is more important that doing what others expect of you.

But maybe you want more? You like your work, but you want to explore something more interesting that you can become passionate about. There is some good news. Once you become remarkable at something, opportunities start to present themselves. Keep an eye out for projects that are interesting and will stretch you further. Take them on and keep stretching yourself. You’ll find these projects can slowly lead to work you become passionate about.

Maybe you want to switch things up though. You’re remarkable at something, but you’re just not feeling what you’re doing.

Start to look around for work outside of your industry, work that your skills are transferrable to. For example, let’s say you work in a finance team and are particularly good at what you do. You could apply those skills to work in a completely different country or industry. Maybe you find yourself working for an interesting start up, with a more varied role, in an area you’re passionate about. If you’re prepared to sacrifice pay a little, your options become even wider.

Few decisions in life are irreversible. So when you’re on the lookout for interesting work, don’t panic about making a big career mistake. See decisions as small bets. If things start to not feel right, shift gears again until they do.

The key to all this is putting in the work to become remarkable at something. You have to build career capital by focused practice over a long period. And then use that career capital to do interesting work you can become passionate about.

The book describes quite a few examples of people who built career capital and then left a job they despised. They decided to start a business in an area they were hoping to be passionate about, but had no experience or career capital in. It mostly ended in returning to a job they disliked. Once you’ve built career capital, you have to hang onto it.

I was close to making exactly this mistake recently and nearly through the baby out with the bathwater. It wasn’t that I didn’t like what I had become good at (although I thought this at first). It was that freedom had become a bigger priority in my life, to the point that I was becoming unhappy. The answer was redesigning my life so that I still leveraged my career capital, had interesting work and more freedom. This is still a work in process.

The last word.

Don’t over-worry over finding work you can be passionate about. It can be torturous. Speak to anyone who has a job they love and most of them will describe a path they had absolutely no clue they would take. And there is always a lot of randomness in it. Connecting the dots forward is incredibly hard – virtually impossible. You have to keep taking small steps, have faith and just keep moving forward. Focus on getting good at something and keep seizing opportunities when they pop up. Things will usually work out, and in ways you couldn’t have imagined.

If you thought even some of this made sense, go read So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. I think you’ll like it.

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.