How to be a Productivity Ninja

How to be a Productivity Ninja
The way
of the
The way of the productivity ninja
“Being busy does not always
mean real work. The object
of all work is production or
accomplishment and to either
of these ends there must be
forethought, system, planning,
intelligence and honest purpose,
as well as perspiration. Seeming
to do is not doing.”
Ever thought you should ‘get better at
managing your time’? Have you spent
ages wondering how some people seem
to be able to get so much more done than
you, or how you can learn to cope with the
seemingly endless and growing volume
of emails and other things that need to be
done? Do you wonder why there just never
seem to be enough hours in the day?
It’s often thought that good ‘time
management’ is the key to productivity,
success and happiness. There are hundreds of books on time management,
mostly written by ‘guru’ types who seem to have it all so perfectly and succinctly
summarised: prioritise the right things, start the day with a list of what you need
to do and then systematically tick them off from the most important at the start
of the day through to the least important at the end. File things away, make shortterm, medium-term and long-term goals, organise the clutter around you and
manage complex projects with long but perfectly written project plans. It all
sounds so easy and so perfect, doesn’t it?
– Thomas Edison
Well, let’s get one thing clear straight away. I am not writing this book because I’m
some kind of time management guru. I’m not one of those naturally organised
people. In fact, my natural style of work is quite the opposite: flaky, ideas based,
more comfortable at the strategic level than the doing level, allergic to detail,
thought processes ungrounded in reality, instinctive, crazy-making, ridiculously
unrealistic about what’s achievable in any given time period, cutting things fine.
All of these characteristics are in their own way, amongst what you could call my
strengths and have made me successful in things I’ve done. They’re part of who I
am. I play to these strengths and also recognise them as the crippling weaknesses
that they are, too. Changing my own bad habits and developing strong, positive
new ones gave me the ability to help others do the same. But in grappling with
my own unproductive demons and working hard to become more productive and
gain more control in my work and in my life, I’ve come to an important conclusion:
time management is dead.
Chapter 1
Time management is dead
Somewhere along the line, the game changed. We now live in an age of constant
connection and information overload. The current potential to be bombarded
with new information inputs - and from several different sources at the same time
- would have been staggering to comprehend even ten years ago. In the old time
management texts, dealing with new inputs was simple enough: they came in
the form of paper letters, delivered to the office first thing every morning and
perhaps again first thing in the afternoon if you were really popular. Dealing with
and reacting to the new was a self-contained, limited activity that would take no
more than an hour a day. According to the old time management principles, this
left you free for the rest of the day to get on with the ‘real work’, which could be
planned out early in the day via a simple daily to-do list and ABC priority system.
Today, such systems seem archaic: it’s a big challenge to create the time and
attention needed to get anywhere near our real work because we’re buried
under 24-7 email, social media, voicemails, instant messenger, texts, intranets,
conference calls, collaboration tools and the burden of staying connected. Ever
got to 5pm and found you’re still staring at a full to-do list, wondering where the
day went? Me too.
Quite apart from the ever-increasing volume of information in our work, there are
so many other reasons why time management theories of old no longer cut it.
Work is more complex now than it ever has been and yet our roles are less defined
and the work itself more free-flowing; the emphasis is less on rigid management
hierarchies and more on each member of the team taking personal responsibility;
the pace of communication has increased dramatically and we’re expected to
reply or at least be ‘in the loop’ constantly. The pace of change certainly feels
more dramatic too and working hours are becoming longer and more flexible not
only to the needs of parents but of colleagues across continents.
You will never get everything finished
Ask yourself this: if you’ve ever made a to-do list with priorities on it (for example,
A, B and C priorities), did you manage to get to the ‘C’ listed items before more ‘A’
grade opportunities or potential disasters presented themselves? Of course you
didn’t. And if you did get to those ‘C’ listed items, chances are you got to them
because they suddenly started to rise up the ranks, becoming the more urgent ‘A’
and ‘B’ items because they were previously left unattended.
The way of the productivity ninja
Mourning the death of ‘getting everything finished’
It’s time for us to acknowledge that we’re no longer capable of getting it all
finished. Think back to a moment in your working life when there was nothing
more to possibly do that day. It’s probably very hard to think of that situation in
recent times; there’s always a bit more business development, a bit of clearing
the decks, a bit of catching up on reading or housekeeping. You’re probably
casting your mind back to one of your first jobs, where perhaps you worked in
a bar and at the end of a long shift, you could all mop down the floors, close
down the bar and sit down with a beer, rejoicing in a good night’s work and the
satisfaction of completion. Completion is a great feeling, isn’t it? The satisfaction
that you’ve achieved something, and that it’s completely done and gone is
psychologically thrilling.
The other reason completion is satisfying is that it naturally gives way to clear
space. Psychologically, clear space helps provide perspective, a brief recovery
from the frenetic pace of life and time to re-evaluate our priorities.
The trouble is, the modern work paradigm gives us so little sense of completion
or clear space that it feels like we’re constantly staring at the light at the end of a
long, long tunnel. And when the light at the end of the tunnel approaches, you
realise it’s just some nasty bloke with a torch bringing you more work to do.
Time management is dead,
long live attention management
There’s a new game now, with completely new rules. Put simply, skilful attention
management is the new key to productivity, and how well you protect and use
your attention determines your success. There are some mortal enemies standing
in your way, though: stress, procrastination, interruptions, distractions, low-value
commitments, annoying work practices - the list of things that get in the way of
you focussing your attention onto what really matters goes on and on and on. It’s
time to think like a Ninja.
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The way of the Productivity Ninja
This book is about developing a Ninja
mindset and then applying it to every area
the life we’ve planned so as
of your working life - and even beyond that
to have the life that is
into your personal life too if you want to. It
waiting for us.”
is about how we turn information from new
– Joseph Campbell
inputs or vague distractions into completed
and celebrated outcomes. It is about our
relationship with information at work, how we are ultimately in control and how
we do ultimately have enough hours in the day to get the important stuff done.
You’ll notice I didn’t just say get “everything” done.
“We must be willing to get rid of
In this chapter, I’ll introduce you to the main behaviours – the way of the Ninja –
that will boost your productivity, reduce your stress levels and change the way
you think about your work. Necessarily, the way of the Productivity Ninja is about
how we think about our work, not how we ‘do’ our work. Rather than being
focussed on specific skills, talents or tools, it is an approach to work, from which
systems and frameworks can then be easily developed. I will show you how to
develop those in the coming chapters, but first let’s talk about the underlying
principles and mindset. In the later chapters, we will apply this mindset to your
everyday situations at work: your email, to-do list, projects and meetings.
decision-making is our work
By 9.15am on an average day in the information age, we’ve received more
information inputs than most old-school time management theorists would have
received in a week! Our work has changed so much that for most of us, how
we deal with surprise, new opportunities and new threats is what makes the
difference. We no longer think about our work: thinking is our work.
Successful careers happen for those who make the best decisions. If you want
to climb the ladder in your organisation, realise that your ability to react and be
responsible are what you’ll be judged on. The higher you go within an organisation
or career, the truer this is. The art of decision-making, our ability to make space
for the ‘quality thinking time’ we need and how we react on our gut instincts
(especially when such time for thinking isn’t available) defines us at work.
The way of the productivity ninja
Are you responsible, or response-able?
How quickly do you react to change? And I don’t mean just realising that things
are changing, but actually digesting, understanding and responding with an
appropriate action? It’s long been thought that people get paid more or achieve
more the more responsible they appear to be and the more responsibility
they are able to take on in their job roles. If you’re climbing a corporate
ladder, you take on more responsibility the higher you go. But simply being
‘responsible’ these days isn’t enough. It’s become a popular trend for footballers
or managers representing the team to come out with statements like,
“I hold my hands up and say I’m responsible for my part in our embarrassing
defeat”. Whilst admitting responsibility is better than not doing so, honour
in defeat still ultimately equals defeat. In the information age, things move
quickly. As a society we value those that are comfortable with positions of
responsibility but we rarely explore responsibility as something proactive
and dynamic; we attach it as a passive label, like a heavy chain around the
neck of every manager, boss or leader. “I don’t want the responsibility”, we
say, as if it’s a term full only of burdens and without corresponding joys.
Being in a position of responsibility usually also means influence. The nature of
responsibility is that it should also bring reward – the ability to make an impact,
create wealth and success for your organisation, for society, for your family or for
you. By viewing responsibility as inherently troublesome, we view it as the price
to be paid for this success. We see it as a trade off. It shouldn’t be this way.
To be response-able means you have the ability to define in the moment the
actions you need to take to overcome any new challenge. This book will give you
the tools to work on your response-ability and be more response-able in three
important ways:
►► Response-able now
We often choose not to respond with definite actions. We procrastinate and
we seek to delay things if we’re feeling lazy, tired, unsure or worried about
the results. This book will look to challenge your thinking and develop new
habits where you’re proactively looking for ways to respond rather than for
ways to avoid and defer.
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►► Response-able later
You don’t want to worry about what could go wrong on all the other
projects that you’re not working on right now. We’ll set up systems so that
you always know what your next move will be on any given project and so
that you know that these systems will keep things under control for you.
►► Response-able if the crap hits the fan
When you have to drop everything to deal with a crisis, it’s much easier if
you have a sure-fire way of knowing or remembering what you’ve dropped.
The systems and techniques in this book will make it easier to respond when
such moments come along, ensuring full focus on the job at hand.
The Characteristics of the Productivity Ninja
“Simplicity is the ultimate
What follows are the key characteristics
that make up ‘the way of the Productivity
As we look at each of these in turn,
– Leonardo da Vinci
you may begin to picture some of the ways
these approaches can influence how you currently operate. As we go through
the later chapters, I’ll show you the tools and techniques to achieve Ninja-level
The way of the productivity ninja
Zen-like Calm
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Zen-like Calm
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 likely to be the ones we want to forget about. The Ninja
realises this, remains calm in the face of adversity, and equally calm under the
pressure of information overload. You might not believe this, but it is entirely
possible to have a hundred and one things to do and yet still remain absolutely
calm. How do we beat stress and remain calm? I’ll answer this question more fully
as we look at the practical skills needed for Ninja-mastery of email, tasks, projects
and meetings, but here are a few basic principles:
Use your head, don’t use your head!
“The mind is for having ideas,
Be sure that you’re not forgetting important
items by keeping all of your support
not for holding them.”
information in a system, not in your head. Be
– David Allen
sure that you’re not distracted and stressed
by what you could be forgetting - by using a system instead of your own head as
the place where information and reminders live. This is certainly easier said than
done, but once mastered, really works. I will introduce you to your very own Ninja
System later in this book.
Trust your system
You need to have trust that whatever systems you use will work. There is a danger
that additional stress will be created by the uncertainty of not knowing whether
your systems will help you deliver. Moving to a new computer or new software
brings with it a few days of uncertainty, but many people live for years without
ever really asking themselves if their systems work to the point that they really
trust them to work. Sticking to what you trust and trusting what you stick to are
crucial. The way to foster this trust and promote the Zen-like calm you need is
to regularly consider not just your work, but the process of your work too. Briefly
but regularly reviewing how you work will help you to promote clearer thinking
in the work itself.
Lower your expectations. Seriously.
Realise that you’ll never get everything done. That’s not the game anymore. Be
safe in the knowledge that you’re in control, selecting the right things to do, and
The way of the productivity ninja
that you’re doing as much as one human being possibly can. This definitely does
not mean ‘don’t be ambitious’; it does mean that if you have a sense of ambition,
you’ll probably experience some times in your life with more on your plate than
you can physically do. What you know once you get into this situation is that you
physically can’t do it on your own. Once you recognise this, there are three things
you can do:
1. Worry about it and beat yourself up with stress.
2. Identify a ‘route through’ - work like a horse until you get to the end, keeping sane in the knowledge that you’re moving as productively and
effectively as you can.
3. Get some help. Hire someone. Call in some favours. Delegate. After all,
many hands make light work.
I’m a fan of numbers two and three but I see number one far too often when
I’m working with people. The truth is that worry, stress and negative thought
patterns are intensely tiring and completely unproductive.
Keep your body in good physical condition
“A healthy body means
Keeping fit and healthy will not only reduce
stress in its own right, but will also give
your brain the focus and energy it needs
- Unknown
to produce clearer thinking and decisionmaking that will enable you to stay on top of your work, too. And it means you’ll
look hot. It’s a win-win-win!
a healthy mind.”
There are hundreds of theories about why physical fitness positively impacts
the brain. I will discuss a few of them when we look at practical ways you can
manage your attention span in Chapter 3. Aerobic exercise that increases the
flow of endorphins to the brain, eating protein-rich foods like nuts, beans, fish
and chicken and cutting down on your use of stimulants like caffeine and alcohol
will all help you regulate your attention span, stay happy and promote positiveoutlook thinking. Sometimes clichés are clichés because they’re so true.
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Be prepared & organised, ready for when times get rough
Some of us look at being organised as being
a bit too anal or obsessive. “I don’t have the
– Unknown
time to be organised,” is a common objection
I hear when coaching clients towards Productivity Ninja status. But the truth is
that when we experience periods of ‘flow’ - the times in our day or week when
we’re most productive – the last thing we want to do is be thrown off track by
being unable to find some crucial piece of information or by not having the tools
we need readily available. Operating from a default of ‘disorganised’ simply
means we’re setting ourselves up to fail by regularly needing to break periods
of flow. However, there are certainly times when ‘being a bit more organised’
should not be the first thing on our to-do list for the day; there are times when
the delivery of the mission critical takes over and being organised can wait. But
those times are far easier and you’re more likely to experience regular periods of
super-productive flow if at regular intervals you get back to the default position
of being organised. Usually, those people who naturally resist the idea of being
organised are the very same people who experience the greatest mindset shift
from getting their paperwork, projects, email inbox and everything else under
control. It’s immensely calming if you do it regularly, but probably even more so if
you don’t normally experience it very often. The realisation that after each battle
comes a period of rest and realignment, and the strategic value of preparedness
for the battles to come, are central to the Ninja philosophy.
“A tidy desk is a tidy mind.”
The way of the productivity ninja
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It’s not a paradox to follow Zen-like calm with ruthlessness. We have already
talked about the need to make clear-headed decisions, objectively and calmly. 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, see the timber from the
trees and sorting the big opportunities from the even bigger ones. Ruthlessness
isn’t just about how we process information though, it’s also about our ability to
protect our time and attention, focussing only on the things that add the greatest
impact, even at the expense of other things that are ‘worth doing’.
Being choosy: saying “No” to ourselves
With abundance of information such a problem, being choosy is the only way. It
goes against the western, protestant work ethic culture that we’re so familiar with
to decide not to do things, but that’s exactly what we must do. A lot. Being much
choosier about what we say “Yes” to is an important skill – and learning to say
“No” to ourselves means not biting off more than we can chew. If you do get into
situations where you’ve bitten off more than you can chew (and I do this regularly,
by the way!), it’s about realising that renegotiating your commitments to yourself
and others is better than burning yourself out trying to meet them all.
Unwanted work: saying “No” to others
Picture this. You’re in a meeting that you thought you were attending purely
to contribute to, and the meeting discussion begins to come around to some
decisions and commitments about actions people could take at the end of the
meeting. There’s a particular set of actions that you’re renowned for being good
at, and just as it’s mentioned, several pairs of eyes turn and focus on you. It’s
easy in this situation to over-commit. It’s harder to rein the conversation back
from what you could deliver and on to what you’re able to deliver. It’s harder still,
when you know how valuable your contribution could be, to say “No” to all of it...
without feeling like you’re letting the side down or losing favour with someone
who matters. Saying “No” to others is tricky. It requires steely resolve, a ruthless
streak and some great tactics so that you come out smelling of roses. We’ll look at
this in more detail later, but make it your mission to perfect the art of saying “No”
to yourself and to others. It goes a long way.
The way of the productivity ninja
Our attention – particularly that proactive attention when we’re most alert, in flow
and on top of our game – is arguably our most precious resource. It needs to be
nurtured and valued. At the same time, there are a million interruptions out there:
emails, phone calls, thoughts, stress, colleagues, social media, the next big crisis,
the next big thing. All of them need to be stopped dead in their quest to distract
and derail you. We deal with this in some detail in Chapter 3, but needless to say,
our ruthlessness needs to put pay to a whole lot of temptation too: we often like to
be distracted because it’s the perfect excuse for procrastination and thinking less.
Facebook or Twitter win over the report we’re supposed to be finishing simply
because it’s easier to be in those places, having conversations, than it is to get
into the difficult thinking we’re supposed to be engaged in. There’s nothing like
a good interruption to keep us busy, unfocussed and distracted from the difficult
thinking ahead. And don’t pretend that doesn’t apply to you and that you’re
smarter; if it’s not Facebook, it’ll be chatting with colleagues, or something else!
So again, dealing with such interruptions is as much about our self-discipline as it
is our ability to say “No” to the interruptions of others.
80-20 and the power of impact thinking
Being ruthless also means being selective
about how we achieve our goals. Using the
– Stephen Covey
80-20 rule, we can start to recognise that not
all of what we do creates an equal amount
of impact. 20% of what we do accounts for 80% of the impact. Often, there’s a
temptation to aim for perfection. In some areas of our work, this perfection is
healthy and even necessary but in other cases, it can be avoided and the impact
on the final result hardly even noticed. So we need to be ruthless in our planning.
What are we trying to achieve? Has someone else solved this problem before?
Could we beg, borrow or steal? What’s the quickest way we can get this item
off our plate and move on? These questions lead us towards thinking about
innovation and a contempt for the orthodox (which we’ll come to very shortly!)
but with a steely focus only on the end and not on the means, we’ll give ourselves
a better chance of saving some time, reducing the energy expended considerably
and reducing the final result only by a fraction.
“Begin with the end in mind.”
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The way of the productivity ninja
The Ninja is skilful on their own, but knows that using the right tools makes them
more effective.
Choose your weapon, know your tools
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
►► Thinking tools
►► Organising tools
Choosing what to use and when, and being aware of the capabilities of each are
key to success. Tools need to give us confidence and ensure that through their
productive use, we’re rarely interrupted by our own ineptitude.
Thinking tools
As our decisions get more complex, our need for tools to assist our thinking
becomes more apparent. Strategic planning processes or line management
feedback situations are often where we first encounter such tools, but their
value is still underestimated. Certain tools and their explicit use can also give
clients, line managers and other stakeholders additional confidence in your
processes and can stimulate your thinking. For example, SWOT analysis (looking at
strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) is a common business thinking
tool that provides a simple structure to think about the present and future in a
way that people can easily understand. There are a broad range of such thinking
tools and frameworks that have been created to help make our lives easier and
our decision-making better.
Organising tools
From Microsoft Outlook and iPhone apps to the humble stapler, there are so many
ways to be organised. The trick is to get to a very good level of organisation rather
than an excellent or mediocre level; this ensures that the time spent on getting
organised receives the optimum payoff in increased productivity, rather than
becoming a drain on our time and an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction.
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Don’t get seduced by ‘productivity porn’
“Joining a Facebook group
Tools are there to help us get things done, but
our obsession with them can occasionally
about productivity is like buying
become a distraction. There are some
a chair about jogging.”
great productivity websites out there –
- Merlin Mann
often created or led by influential and
insightful thinkers – like Merlin Mann’s and Leo Babauta’s, but whilst we do need to keep up with technology and
innovation to the extent that it increases our productivity, we also need to be
hyper-conscious that this is in itself ‘dead time’, away from the completion of
our priority tasks and projects. I worry when I hear someone talk about their
productivity purely and exclusively in the context of which new iPhone app
they’ve just downloaded. These tools assist our thinking and organising: they
don’t replace the need for it. Worse still, it’s not uncommon for people to retype
all their projects and actions from one piece of software to another under the
oft-mistaken premise that they’re increasing their productivity by 5% by doing
this. No, that’s just a day of procrastination.
Modelling decision-making
At the heart of the way of the Productivity Ninja is improving our ability to
make decisions. By challenging ourselves to continually improve and innovate,
the quality, quantity and speed of our decisions will increase. Remember that
informed and clear decision-making is our aim. Thinking tools help boost our
mental agility, but so does the right information.
It’s often said that there are only eight stories in the world. Any challenge you’re
undertaking probably has a precedent, so getting out there and finding someone
who is familiar with the territory of your decision making can help provide
shortcuts to decisions that you thought would take you forever to master. Asking
others for advice and investigating how others have tackled similar questions is a
great way to come to more informed conclusions on tight timescales. Be equally
free to share what you have learned with others and you’ll find you are rewarded
tenfold with the information and advice you get back. Learn from those willing to
share, share with those willing to learn. I think we’re moving towards a new age
of collaboration, as our connectedness opens up new technologies that make
this possible – and as I write this, I truly believe we’re still hanging around on the
starting blocks.
The way of the productivity ninja
Twitter and Facebook are fantastic tools for throwing out questions or issues to a
group of trusted friends and colleagues: it’s so valuable getting a second, third,
fourth and fifth opinion on something. It’s amazing how much time and mental
energy you’ll save. But equally, don’t be afraid to think independently and draw
your own conclusions when your instinct tells you to.
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Stealth & camouflage
The way of the productivity ninja
Stealth & camouflage
We talked earlier about protecting your attention spans and keeping focussed.
It’s hard to do. This is where the Ninja needs to employ a bit of old-fashioned
stealth and camouflage.
If you’re in the limelight, you might get caught in the
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. Avoid
too much of the social chit chat and time-wastery that goes on in so many offices.
Be a little bit elusive, a bit mysterious and even, if you have to, aloof. Protect your
attention to ensure it’s spent on what you decide to spend it on, not what others
hijack it for. Here are a few examples:
► Spend as much time as you can away from your desk – work from home, in
cafés, in meeting rooms, and outside. Even if you work in an open plan office
where this feels impossible, you can still try to negotiate some ‘thinking time’
away from your desk with your line manager. And of course you can use the
more ruthless and stealth-like approach of just booking vague-sounding
appointments in your Outlook diary so that people just assume, “Oh, looks
like they’re out of the office…”
► Get a gatekeeper who can help you say “No” to appointments or meetings
just not worth your while. (If you can get someone else to say “No”, it’s often
easier for you, and nicer for the person you’re turning down!)
► Screen your calls and don’t answer your phone unless you decide the call is
likely to be more important than what you’re currently working on.
► Book time in your calendar for creative thinking, reviewing, forward planning
and other important activities. Have a personal codeword for this if you work
in an office where other people can book your calendar and are unlikely to
respect your autonomy if they see ‘personal thinking time’ or ‘reading’ as a
calendar entry. Use ‘private’ or ‘meeting outside of the office’ instead.
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► Set clear boundaries around things like email, Facebook chat, Skype and
Instant Messenger. Get into the habit of being very conscious of when
each of these is to be turned on and off. The default setting in almost
every organisation I’ve ever worked in is that Outlook (or other email client)
is turned on 100% of the time. This same intrusion is increasingly true for
Skype, IM and other services. It’s time to wriggle away from the pressures of
connectivity and ‘go dark’.
Going dark
As well as protecting our attention from others, we must recognise the need to
protect our attention from ourselves. We can be our very own worst enemy. There’s
a phrase in software development called ‘Going Dark’ which refers to the time
when a developer is ‘in the zone’ with their programming and has subsequently
stopped answering emails or responding to other communications. They can
be extremely difficult to find. Those that manage software developers get
frustrated by this, but also know that there’s probably some amazing productivity
happening… somewhere.
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
(and who isn’t?!), disconnect once in a while. Yes, a productivity book is telling
you to turn off the internet! If I turn off my wifi connection for two hours, I know
there will be no new email arriving during that time, and that it will be annoying
enough having to fiddle around with turning the connection back on to keep me
from doing so.
The art of camouflage is an important skill in keeping us productive. We may be
off the radar, but that certainly doesn’t mean we’re not working. Quietly hiding
away is not for everyone and it’s not something you can’t do all the time. But it
does focus the mind on the task at hand and avoids so many of the interruptions
and distractions that we place in front of our own eyes.
Stealth delegation
Finding other people to do your work for you is a great way to get more done.
The problem is that the world is pretty scarce with people who actually want
to do your work for you! Hence, a bit of stealth delegation is in order. This is
unorthodox for a number of reasons, but consider first that you are unlikely to be
The way of the productivity ninja
able to claim credit for your actions and also that things may turn out differently
to how you had imagined. If you’re prepared to tolerate that, it’s a great tactic.
Better still, work out from your project list which of the projects you could afford
to have others work on in different ways, or that you care least about. These are
the ones to consider stealth delegating. Here are three common forms of stealth
delegation. As a Ninja, you might well discover your own techniques, too.
1. Piggy backing: advertising your offer through someone else’s mailout,
launching your new product at someone else’s event or ‘borrowing’ their
contact list to launch something jointly. If momentum exists elsewhere in
the world, jump on board.
2. Cultivating ‘partners-in-crime’: looking for the ‘win-win’ opportunities to
work with equally savvy, equally useful and equally inspiring people.
3. Short-cutting: find people who’ve done the research, got a recommendation, learned the hard way and are eager to give their advice so that you
don’t make the same mistakes. A five-minute phone call to get a personal
recommendation is much easier than an hour Google searching the best
solution. Find people whose opinions you trust – and trust them!
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The way of the productivity ninja
What’s important is the end result. It doesn’t matter if you use the conventional
route to get there or find an easier path. Just because a seasoned professional tells
you something needs to take 16 hours, doesn’t make it true. Be willing to question
everything. It’s important to be on constant lookout for every opportunity to
take advantage of progress and innovation and do things more easily because
the chances are, a lot of the people around you stopped doing that long ago.
They just do things the old way and they’re happy not to change it too much. We
must avoid getting stuck in a rut and doing things less efficiently than we could,
at all costs.
Don’t be afraid to stand out when the time is right
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 easy 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 the satisfaction that comes from pushing
boundaries to improve the process and increase productivity.
Pushing boundaries is easier when you’re not really pushing
This is one of the Ninja secrets. The exact problem you face at work today is a
problem that someone in another industry faced yesterday and that someone
else will face tomorrow. So just as we can model decision-making, we can also
model innovation from elsewhere. Injecting some fresh thinking into a situation
and trying to see the problem through the lens of someone in a completely
different area of work can be a useful technique. If, for example, you’re looking to
communicate more creatively, why not ask yourself, “How would an advertising
agency do this?” or, “How would Nelson Mandela tackle this?”, or if you need more
method in amongst the madness, ask how a surgeon or engineer would approach
the task. And, if you know people who do those kinds of jobs, call them up and
ask for their perspective. You’ll be surprised how effective this kind of modelling
can be. Genuinely pushing boundaries is exciting, but can be a lot more timeconsuming and takes a lot more effort than simple modelling. Innovation in one
industry or job role can be the status quo somewhere else and vice versa.
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Modelling & partners-in-crime
An obsession with unorthodoxy and innovation also means ditching some of
the foolish creations of the ego: never be afraid or embarrassed or too proud to
ask for advice, even if that means you needing to show weakness. And never
resist an opportunity to learn something new from a trusted source. Modelling
the success of others is crucial. Mentoring is a great way to do this: take advice
from those who have travelled the road you’re setting out on, avoid making the
mistakes they themselves made, and shortcut to success. Along with mentors,
think about your ‘partners-in-crime’. Who are the people travelling a similar road
at the same time as you? Chances are, they all have mentors too and are learning
equally important things. Never be afraid to share your learning with others
as you’ll be amazed at the priceless lessons you get back in return. Sometimes
we resist such collaborative approaches because we believe, like some kind of
superhero, that there is some added virtue in achieving things on our own or in
being competitive. Remember, the only thing that matters is whether you get
there; no one cares how.
Break rules and disrespect bureaucracy
Whilst certain rules are worth upholding – and there are certain rules that would
get you fired if you broke them - a Productivity Ninja approaches work with the
mindset to focus on the end result first and work back from there. Questioning
of rules, especially in relation to bureaucracy, is a great skill. Remember that if
the risk of serious repercussions is limited, it’s usually easier to apologise than to
ask permission. There are times when we just need to show some leadership and
crack on. Don’t be afraid to rip up the rulebook, especially if you can trash some
tired old bureaucracy along the way.
The way of the productivity ninja
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A Ninja needs to be light on their feet, able to respond with deftness to new
opportunities or threats. Anything that requires a lot of shifting of thinking,
quick reactions and decisions will of course need our proactive attention. And as
we know, this is a finite resource. Our ability to react quickly and appropriately to
new challenges really comes down to two things:
1.Our own mental ‘reserves’ or capacity to spend more of our days in proactive
attention 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;
2.Our ability to bring in other resources to aid this process – other people,
more time and better technology.
Keeping light on our feet
Just as when we talked about tools we said there was a need to focus on these
in the ‘fallow periods’ in order that we’re most agile when the going gets tough,
the same process is true of developing our ‘response-ability’. There are some
important steps we can take on a day-to-day basis to do this:
►► Keep organised: if we need to react, we need to be ready.
►► Under-commit, don’t over-commit your diary: it’s always very tempting
to bite off more than we can chew and it’s even easier to find your day
committed to other people’s meetings. At the start of the week or month,
keep space and time in your calendar, ready and able to be filled by stuff
you don’t know exists yet. That might sound obvious, but one look at
how packed your own schedule is in the next few days will prove that it’s
much easier said than done. This clear space in the diary is truly your
►► Grown into, don’t grow out of: with any organising system you use, think
one step ahead and develop systems far in advance of the capacity you
need. For example, if you’re going to have an upsurge in business and new
clients coming on board, managing client contact information on a scruffy
Excel spreadsheet that’s bursting at the seams will slow you down at the
The way of the productivity ninja
crucial point. Investing the time before you need to into developing a
super-hot database will seem unproductive at the time, but is actually the
smarter move. In London, the Victorians built the sewers and tube lines to
be ten times the required capacity. People complain about the tube system
now, forgetting how ahead of its time it really was and how wise they were
to think so far ahead in terms of the additional capacity requirements. All I
can say is, thank goodness they did that for the sewers!
Spotting an opportunity or threat, wherever it arrives from
In order to react and respond well, we
need strategic vision. We need to spot
people, because it is dressed in
opportunity even when it knocks very softly
overalls and looks like work.”
at the door and see threats coming whilst
- Thomas A. Edison
they’re still relatively in the distance. Again,
this takes some preparation and research and there are some useful shortcuts
to use. Networking, for example, is a great way to keep your ear to the ground.
Different people will have a different policy on networking, but broadly I set out
to tick off these criteria, in this order:
“Opportunity is missed by most
1. Am I likely to meet interesting and useful people?
2. Is this person remarkable? Do they have something to say, or a good track
record, or good enthusiasm? (If not, move on - there’s nothing to see here!)
3. Can this person tell me something that informs my work and broadens my
strategic sense?
4. Can we work together on something?
5. Is there an obvious win-win here that takes half the effort of the conversation
Only when I get to number five do I commit. Often we get carried away with
possibility, but delivery is another matter, so only pursue those that in conversation
appear to be the ‘no-brainers’.
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The way of the productivity ninja
Managing our minds
Our minds are our most important tool. Being emotionally intelligent and selfaware are important for so many reasons, not least because they equip you to
take action. For instance, a lot of the things that make up the Ninja mindset,
such as remaining calm, being ruthless and pushing the boundaries by
being unorthodox, aren’t easy. In fact, in many ways they go against our
evolutionary design.
Listening to the ‘lizard brain’ & our own resistance
Our brains have evolved a lot since we were monkeys, but one thing has hardly
changed: the lizard brain. A term popularised by Seth Godin in his brilliant book
Linchpin, this part of our brain still remembers what it was like to need to survive,
to blend in, to not make a fuss. In fact, the worst thing for the lizard brain to think
would be that whatever we’re doing makes us stand out. Standing out from the
crowd in evolutionary terms meant you’d get picked off by a predator and this is
exactly how the lizard brain still thinks!
Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art is a revealing and personal account of his
battles as a writer against what he calls ‘the resistance’. The resistance is a mindset,
usually developed by the lizard brain, but characterised by stress, anxiety, fear of
failure, fear of success and a whole host of other emotions that whir around our
brains and tell us to stand still. “Stop. Don’t do it. It’s risky. Do it how others do
it because that’s what we know is already accepted behaviour. Innovation and
unorthodoxy is a crazy idea. Creativity is just wrong.” Your job as a Ninja is to
silence those thought processes as much as possible.
This sounds easy but it’s not – mainly because they’re often so quiet that you
don’t even realise they need silencing at all. Pay close attention to yourself and
your gut instincts, but also objectively observe your productivity, noticing which
tasks you’re drawn to and repelled by. You don’t need to be a psychologist or
a counsellor to understand your own thinking, but you do need to pay close
attention to it.
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Emotions & meditation
Many people will tell you that allowing time and space to listen to your emotions,
listen to your heart and just be mindful is either a waste of time or somehow ‘hippy
psychobabble’. The Ninja knows differently - knows that it’s all about perception
and there’s a greater force inside of us that we can channel towards fulfillment,
success and changing the world. A bad day can be as much about what’s going on
in your head as what’s going on in the office. Those that regularly practice or have
even tried some form of mediation will know of its benefits. In fact, meditation
can help sharpen all of the other aspects of the Ninja mindset we’ve just discussed.
I take a wide definition of meditation here that includes sitting quietly staring at
a beautiful view, praying, free writing and other creativity pursuits, Yoga, walking
(if the purpose is to walk, not to arrive!) and many other things. Again, the aim is
to promote Zen-like calm and be focussed and fully present in your work.
Listening to others
As well as taking the time to listen to our own thoughts and emotions, active
and effective listening is at the heart of great meetings and collaborative work.
Listening to objections and hearing only feedback and connection rather than
criticism and opposition is a crucial skill, too. We will come back to these themes
in Chapter 11.
The way of the productivity ninja
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Finally in our list of the characteristics to aspire to is one that underpins and
strengthens so many of the others we’ve just talked about: preparedness. Zenlike 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.
Practical preparedness
A weapon-savvy Ninja knows the added sense of control they feel when tackling
a problem or project with the right tools. There used to be a time when being
organised, focussing on the stationery or the geeky apps was considered nerdy or
uncool. Well, the time has come to unleash your inner geek. It’s time to maintain
practical systems that will mean you’re always prepared to tackle whatever comes
your way. It may seem less cool than just ‘going with the flow’, but there is power
in stocking up on stationery, power in investing time in the right systems and
power in attacking your work from the position of being well prepared.
Mental Preparedness
As well as being physically well prepared, we need to be mentally well prepared
too. This of course means mindfulness, but it also means looking after our most
precious resource: our own attention and energy. As such, we need time to be
off duty too. Perhaps being off duty involves a long Facebook binge or surfing
crap on the internet. Perhaps it involves going out with friends or taking time to
focus your attention onto something completely different (or onto nothing at all).
Many people are pressured by their bosses to stay late in the office. I have talked
to a lot of people who say that even though no one feels like there’s anything to
do, let alone feels ready to do anything, they still stay - for about five minutes after
the boss has gone home. If you’re in a job where you’re under this kind of peer
pressure, it needs to change. We’ll work on that together. As for your boss, well,
perhaps buying them a copy of this book would be a start!
The way of the productivity ninja
Lunch is not for wimps
‘Crunching’ is a term that means buckling down, eyes on the deadline or conscious
of the busy period ahead. It means not looking after yourself and not coming up
for air. Crunching is a great short-term tactic when the going gets tough. But
studies show that sustained periods of ‘crunch’ only lead to diminishing returns.
In the film Wall Street, Gordon Gecko, played brilliantly by Michael Douglas,
uttered the now legendary phrase, “Lunch is for wimps”. It stuck in the collective
consciousness and you’ll still hear it used to this day. Well, lunch is not for wimps.
But preparedness is for Ninjas.
Preparedness leads to magic
It’s difficult to say why taking lunch or short breaks during the working day always
brings you so quickly back to ruthless focus and your ‘A’ game. It just happens
that way. Periods of rest are vital for preparedness. Next time you spend any
meaningful length of time during the hours of nine to five not working and move
your attention onto something completely different, just watch what happens; I’ll
bet that on that day, you’ll get more done, not less. It’s like a magical little secret.
Different shifts in gear seem to work for different people, but it’s as much in the
body as in the mind. A five-minute blast of fresh air is infinitely more effective
than ten minutes screwing about on the internet with your work still open in the
background. The trick is to find the thing that works for you. As we look more
at managing your attention and momentum later in the book, we will revisit this
very unusual but startlingly effective secret.
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Exercise: Preparedness
What you’ll need: Self-awareness,
space to think
How long it’ll take: 20 minutes
Ninja mindset: Mindfulness
You’ve read through the key characteristics that make up the Way of the
Productivity Ninja – Zen-like Calm, Ruthlessness, Weapon-Savvy, Stealth
& Camouflage, Unorthodoxy, Agility, Mindfulness, Preparedness – so take
a moment to decide which three are already quite well developed in you,
and which three you think you need to focus on throughout the book.
Make a note of them here and refer back to them as you work through the book.
Nearly a ninja...
A bit of ninja practice
The way of the productivity ninja
Ninjas are not superhuman…
...but they sometimes appear so
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ninjas are not superhuman…
...but they sometimes appear so
“Life is really simple, but we
insist on making it complicated.”
– Confucius
Working in this way is liberating, fun
and super-productive. Sometimes as a
Productivity Ninja you will seem to others
like you have special powers. Sometimes it
will even seem that way to you.
However, a Ninja is very different from a superhero. A Ninja is just a regular guy
or girl, but with tools and skills and a very special mindset. There are no super
powers and no kryptonite.
As a Ninja, you’ll develop a reputation as someone who delivers, someone who
is reliable, makes good decisions and takes their work seriously. Apart from when
you wear your Ninja mask. Keep that private.
Ninjas are passionate, indispensible and calm under pressure. Ninjas get things
done in a way that seems, well, magical.
Ninjas work magic…
Magic isn’t really magic, but it is magical. It’s exciting to be around people who
make magic happen – the people who seem to have an innate sense of how to
deliver and create impact. It’s even more exciting when you’re the person creating
that magic. As a Ninja, what were once routine tasks become opportunities for
fun, discovery, experimentation and the unleashing of your inner geek. Thinking
about the process of your work as well as the work itself will help you to love what
you do, whatever that may be. You will gain excitement and a sense of magic from
being better at doing what you were doing before; you’ll be less stressed about it;
and you’ll experience a momentum in your work that you never thought possible.
Ninjas work in a unique heightened flow of relaxed productivity, brought about
by hyper-awareness, calm and focus. It’s a magical experience that you won’t
want to go back from. But it’s not all plain sailing either.
The way of the productivity ninja
Ninjas also occasionally screw up
“The best brewer sometimes
By seeking ultra-productivity, using unorthodox
means and for a host of other more ‘human’
makes bad beer.”
reasons, Ninjas are prone to screwing up once
– German proverb
in a while. In old time management books,
the time management ‘gurus’ would paint
themselves as a picture of superhero perfection. They’d give you detailed
planners to fill in, have you performing high fives in celebration of continuous
massive achievement and leave you as the reader wondering how on earth
they managed the impossible. Well, don’t believe a word of it. We’re all prone
to screwing up – no matter how organised, how intelligent, or how seemingly
perfect we are or are trying to be. Yes, you too.
We can aim for perfection and fail, or we can aim for Zen-like Calm, Ruthlessness,
Weapon-Savvyness, Stealth and Camouflage, Unorthodoxy, Agility, Mindfulness
and Preparedness, and succeed. Yes, we’ll make mistakes. No, we won’t be
perfect. But what we will do is increase productivity in ways you never thought
possible before.
It simply isn’t possible for me to make you a superhero and if you want that, there
are plenty of other books out there that will promise it but won’t deliver. It’s an
unrealistic dream, a fantasy never fulfilled.
But it is possible that we can make you a Ninja.
So, my apprentice! Let’s get started, shall we?
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