Posts in "Productivity"

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.


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 :).

Lists and using Trello to run my life

I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, I’m going to start using Trello to organise my life.

Richard Branson is a big advocate of making lists and I seem to be coming across more and more people who swear by keeping lists.

I guess I’ve always used lists to keep organised, but it’s been a mix of Microsoft word, notepad, google docs and a moleskin notepad. Some lists might not get looked at for weeks and I’m not particularly good at remembering things that come to mind throughout the day. It’s about time I tried to pull everything together and get a system that works.

Trello is super easy to use and it’s quick to move things between lists and re-order items within lists.

I’ve set up two boards — me and work. Each board has a number of lists and here’s what I started with:

me

  • to do
  • house jobs
  • bucket list
  • friends to connect with
  • ideas

work

  • to do
  • my interests
  • sources for finding companies
  • companies — to look at
  • companies — to contact
  • companies — applied
  • people to catch up with

That pretty much covers everything at the moment.

I’m going to make a habit of carrying around a notepad with me so I can get stuff quickly out of my head, when and as I think of them. I’ll then move them from notepad to trello at the end of the day.

When I sit down each morning to think about the day ahead, I’ll start with the lists.

I’m looking forward to seeing it works. I think the process of catching ideas quickly with a notepad will mean I’ll forget things less and get more done. Using trello will keep lists front and centre of my daily planning process — again, I should get more done.

I’ll let you know how it works out and if you have any tips for using lists and keeping organised, feel free to suggest here 😉

The Distraction Free iPhone

I’ve tried a few different ways to spend less time on my phone over the last few years, but nothing seems to stick or work properly.

It’s a tricky one. I want all of the goodness that comes with having a smartphone and being constantly connected. However, I also find it’s not such a good thing for me. Checking things on my phone has become almost an addiction and is ruining my appreciation for what’s going on in the real world.

I’ve tried lots of things. Setting myself time periods to use certain apps. Removing email and social networking type apps altogether. I even gave up my smartphone. None of these worked.

When I deleted apps, I would just use safari to access web versions of them. Slowly I would re-install them, convincing myself I could use them more sensibly now (I couldn’t). Also it turns out, not having a smartphone at all is kind of annoying. And let’s be honest, a bit backwards 😉

I wanted the best of both worlds and haven’t been able to figure out how to get it.

Until now.

The Distraction Free iPhone

I read The distraction free iPhone (or why I’m happier since I disabled safari) a couple of weeks ago and decided to give it a shot.

I removed all social media apps and every app that had potential to distract me. No twitter. No email. No whatsapp. I ended up removing about 20 or so apps.

I kept only the apps that were very useful or had a low potential for distraction. They were:

Sonos
Spotify
Soundcloud
Strava
Nike running
Headspace
Google maps
Natwest banking
Duolingo
Pocket
O2
Podcasts

The game changer – removing safari

I hadn’t realised you could literally disable safari on the iPhone. Ok, I know you can re-enable it in less than a minute, but simply not having safari so easily accessible makes all of the difference.

No more accessing the web versions of apps I had removed and no more pointlessly surfing the web. I hadn’t realised that safari was really the weak link in my previous experiments not working.

How do I feel now?

It’s now been nearly two weeks and I haven’t browsed the web or used social networking on my phone at all.

It hasn’t been a problem, because at the end of the day none of that stuff is particularly urgent. I was just using it for the sake of it 99.9% of the time. Normally to fill a gap or out of pure habit.

I now only really use my phone for calls, texting or an app I really want to use.

I tend to check email and social media 2 or 3 times a day now. That’s probably down from 50+. And when I do, it feels more deliberate and focused. It’s a great feeling to shut the laptop down, knowing I have closed my window to email and social networking. Quite liberating.

And much like Jake mentions in his distraction article, it’s not so bad to be bored. Or to spend some time with yourself. You start to use that time to think, to notice stuff around you. Or be completely with what you’re supposed to be doing.

I feel like I have the best of both worlds now. I’m sold, and I’m not going back!