By Graham Allcott, founder of Think Productive, author of ‘How to be a Productivity Ninja’
These days, ‘attention management’ – not time management – is the key to productivity. Our enemies are information overload, stress, tiredness, having too much to do and feeling overwhelmed by the requests and expectations of others. Do you want to surrender and be a victim? Or do you want to fight back and be a Productivity Ninja?
Great decision-making comes from the ability to create the time and space to think rationally and intelligently about the issue at hand. Decisions made during periods of panic are unlikely to give us the edge.
And be sure that you’re not forgetting important items by keeping all of your support information in a system, not in your head. Be sure that you’re not distracted and stressed by what you could be forgetting – by using a ‘second brain’ instead of your own head as the place where information and reminders live.
As a result you can stay calm, present and in the moment, focusing on one thing at a time – knowing that your ‘second brain’ will be there to remind you later about everything else.
As well as needing to make more and better decisions, we need to be choosier, too: processing information to sort the wheat from the chaff. Ruthlessness isn’t just about how we process information though, it’s also about our ability to protect our time and attention, focusing only on the things that add the greatest impact, even at the expense of other things that are ‘worth doing’.
Being ruthless also means being selective about how we achieve our goals. In some areas of our work, perfection is healthy and even necessary but in other cases, it needs to be avoided as it prevents us from moving on to the next thing and isn’t efficient.
There are a range of tools out there to help keep us on top of our game. There are two broad types of tools that the Productivity Ninja needs to have in their armoury:
Thinking tools, such as checklists and management models, provide a way to guide our thinking through tried and tested themes and questions – and because they’re models, they don’t rely on our own memory, so they work as well at 4pm on a Friday as at 10am on a Monday!
Organising tools, such as to-do list software or well-ordered paper systems give us clarity around what we’re doing and help ensure that no project or action gets forgotten at a vital moment.
Stealth and Camouflage
One of the worst things you can do is make yourself always available. It’s an invitation to some of your biggest enemies: distraction and interruption. Keep out of the limelight until you’ve got something you need others to hear.
If your attention and focus is likely to be impeded by unlimited access to the internet and you’re likely to be tempted by its millions of distraction possibilities.
Disconnect once in a while. Yes, turn off the internet! If I turn off my wifi connection for two hours, I get two hours of uninterrupted thinking time.
What’s important is the end result, not the means to get there. Everything else is up for grabs. A Productivity Ninja should recognise that it doesn’t matter how the job gets done. The important thing is that it’s done. It’s important to be on constant lookout for every opportunity to take advantage of progress and innovation and do things more easily. We must avoid getting stuck in a rut and doing things less efficiently than we could, at all costs.
Doing things differently is risky, even when we’ve got a good hunch that we’ve got a better way of doing things. Managers generally prefer the status quo as it gives them an easier life, so doing the thing that challenges the status quo can often tread a fine line between glory and failure. But this isn’t about chasing glory (although we’ll reluctantly and graciously accept it when it comes along) it’s about doing things in a better way and experiencing the satisfaction that comes from pushing boundaries.
Our ability to react quickly and appropriately to new challenges really comes down to two things:
• Our own mental ‘reserves’ or capacity to spend more of our days in a proactive, ‘doing’ mode without getting tired. People do this temporarily through the use of caffeine or other stimulants, which is fine to an extent and in the short-term, but we need to think more sustainably than that.
• Our ability to bring in other resources to aid this process – other people, more time and better technology.
Our minds are our most important tool. Being emotionally intelligent and self-aware are important for so many reasons, not least because this equips you to take action.
Our minds have adapted to the frenetic pace of information overload and we’ve become used to ‘flitting’ rather than keeping our attention focused on what we’re doing and uncomfortable alone with our own thoughts or real opinions. Meditation, prayer, long walks, running and many other activities allow us to ‘switch off’ and retrain the brain to retain the focus we need.
Preparedness underpins and strengthens so many of the other characteristics we’ve just talked about. Zen-like calm in the heat of the battle is only possible if you’re well prepared. Agility is only possible if you’re starting from a position of being prepared and ready to react immediately, producing the right response. And you’re only ready to be ruthless if you’ve got the energy. Being prepared is about practical preparation as well as mental preparation. Lunch is not for wimps and rest and renewal is vital for longer-term success.
A Ninja is not superhuman… but they sometimes appear so
There are too many gurus out there telling you how to be perfect and in doing so, they’re selling you a false dream. Don’t listen to them. A ninja is a human being, with all the foibles and imperfections that we humans have. We can improve, we can do our best and increase productivity to levels that make us seem like we’re productivity superheroes, but we’re still prone to the odd moment of making the wrong decision or screwing things up. It’s time we focused more on the 99 things we do brilliantly than the 1 we screw up. Our Imperfections are nothing more than a great reminder that there’s always more to learn.