Category Archives: Personal Productivity

When it’s time to stop

I’m a big fan of David Allen and the GTD methodology.

I’ve been using it for ten years and as my (working) life has become more complex and demanding, its usefulness has increased. It fits into the category of things that are so embedded in your thinking and practice that you can’t remember what it was like before you encountered it.

His books are worth reading. I’m also on his monthly newsletter list and once I digested the latest one, I felt I had to share this excerpt.


We’ve got to learn to declare things DONE. Especially when they’re not. Not completed, that is, to the level of perfection or result that we initially visualized or committed to.

The world changes, and our creative focus along with it. So do our standards. We will always maintain some inventory or backlog of projects to complete, of things to do. But if we’re not careful and take responsibility for unhooking from those that have outlived their seat on our active list, they can easily constipate our creative process.

I have spent more hours than I can count holding a focus for people while they purged tons of undone, incomplete “stuff” lying around their life. And one of the most difficult exercises for teams is their “disengagement” strategy—what do we need to stop doing, in order to stay focused on what we have to accomplish? And how long did it take me to realize that I no longer am a 33″-waisted person???!!! And that I don’t like jeans that are too tight????!!!!! (Some standards change in spite of ourselves!)

Maybe this difficulty with letting go of things that we have outgrown stems from the admonition so many of us grew up with to “finish everything on your plate before you get dessert!” Maybe it’s because of our proclivity to attach to materiality. Maybe it’s just psychic entropy.

In any case, it’s wise to maintain a “Someday Maybe” list very close to your “Projects” list, so it is easy to slide things from the latter to the former, to relieve the pressure of the undone. It’s smart to “library” all of your books but the one you’re reading right now. And valuable to purge your closets and drawers at least every season, knowing where the local clothing donation drop is, along the route of your regular errands.

It’s a lot more comfortable living life with an inventory of things that fit.


It strikes me that the start of a new year is an ideal time to get really clear about what’s done. I’m sure you are no different to me in having dozens of old or incomplete projects that are withering on the vine. It can be difficult to let projects go, but quitting might be our best option.

And don’t get me started on jeans that no longer fit…





The work ‘You’ and the real ‘You’

Every now and again, you encounter something that helps you clarify your thoughts.

Today, I was fortunate to listen to a piece of audio that helped me clarify a problem that I’ve seen develop for some of my clients, people in my broader network, and at times, myself.

The clarity has emerged around the question of who is the real ‘you’? Is it the person at work or the person at home? Are they the one and the same or are there different personalities in play?

This isn’t a study in schizophrenia. This is an examination of the tendency of people to compartmentalise their life into “work”, “home”, “personal” and other boxes.

This notion can be alluring. You can take on the required persona in your work domain and then be a nicer/kinder/stricter/whatever person outside of work. You can work in wildly different circumstances and behave accordingly.

This audio is part of a series from Paul O’Mahony (@omaniblog) exploring areas of confusion about his business. Paul’s work is unique but his challenges are common to many of us.

Paul makes reference to Twitter. Social media platforms have become so important to so many people in business. And it’s here that the question of the authentic self comes into sharpest focus.

The fantasy of compartmentalisation falls apart when the personal brand is embedded in the business brand. This is a rather fancy way of saying that when you’re selling yourself as well as the business products/services, then you’ve got to accept that you’re visible on the stage.

So many people believe they can separate their personal and business accounts on Twitter, Facebook etc. It ends up being something of a mess. People aren’t as stupid as we might sometimes like to think. If they’re interested in you and/or your products and services, they’ll have a good look at you online. And Google doesn’t care about the delineations within your own head.

Twitter is Twitter. Facebook is Facebook. Platforms like these can be a useful part of your marketing mix but unless you’re selling apps or downloads with one or two clicks, then they are not your business.

Here’s my take:

If you’re in, be all in. Don’t try to bullshit yourself or others. You are what you are, you are what you do. Rather than wasting time trying to portray a version of yourself that you think you should be portraying or that you think others expect of someone like you, get busy doing the stuff that allows you sing with pride “This is what I do”.


(And thanks Paul for the clarity! Full disclosure: Paul has participated in previous Smarter Egg programmes and is active in the ‘community’ around the existing circles and groups.)

Is it effectiveness or happiness we’re looking for?

Happiness is....

I’ve been working a lot recently with the concept of effectiveness and especially on ways of focusing or prioritising our efforts.

Looking again at the morning ritual of asking a clarifying question, it’s interesting to see what changes when you adjust the focus more on to the concept of happiness.

What would be different if you finished this sentence:

I’m likely to be happier at the end of the day if…

Both questions are looking ahead to the end of the day. Both are trying to identify some form of ideal state. So, should the answers be the same, or at least similar?

Some people have no clear association with the concept of happiness and their work. Work is work. It’s there to be done. Happiness is a different gig.

A lot of self-employed people tend to think they’re happier because they don’t have the obligations of a ‘job’. They work at what they want to do and therefore expect to be happier. (My observation of self-employed people is that they absolutely have a job but many haven’t realised it yet. And they’re not necessarily happier either.)

And how is the concept of happiness relevant for someone who works in the corporate world, doing the best they can five days a week? Do they start the day by having a conversation with their boss about their happiness?

And yet, research suggests that happy workers are more productive workers. Misery, angst and sorrow may be great sources of art, poetry and song but rarely help the daily worker get things done.

Are happiness and effectiveness interconnected then? Is it feasible to develop this Effectiveness Project without also exploring the impact of happiness? Can you have one without the other?


Using The Pause to tame The Ping

You know that sensation you feel that stops you from what you’re doing and entices you to check your email, or your social media feeds, or whatever has a call on you? Todd Henry calls it ‘the ping’.

Todd’s definition of the ping has been really useful for me. When he described it as a philosophy, it struck a chord: “Something out there is more important than whatever is right here”.

People say that if you call out and name a problem, you begin to weaken its hold on you. I think by recognising this impulse and actually labeling it, you’re in a much better position to get on top of it.

Hello Ping, we see who you are now, and soon, we’ll have you on the run!

It’s getting more difficult though. The connectivity revolution has meant that we can access pretty much anything in the world at any time from an electronic device that sits on our lap or in our hand. As we are fortunate to live in a truly wonderful world, it makes perfect sense that at any time, there’s something going on ‘out there’ that’s as least as interesting as we’ve got going on here, with the possible exception of when we are talking about ourselves!

Research is now revealing that the lure of email, social media etc. is as, if not more, addictive as the kind of drugs that have ruined lives for centuries. Why wouldn’t we be attracted to the unlimited excitement and fascination that awaits us in the big bad (online) world?

This is a problem, and one we need to tackle. Fast.

Back to Todd’s definition: he doesn’t use the word interesting or fascinating or entertaining. He uses the word important. And that’s good news. I’m not sure we can compete and win on grounds of fascination or entertainment but we can certainly decide for ourselves what’s more important. And this means we can own this problem, and take responsibility for it.

I’ve battled with the ping for a few years. I find some days I have him under control, other days I find him over-powering. But here’s something that I find works well for me. I’m going to call it ‘The Pause’. (why not name it and capitalize it, makes it seem very authoritative. Thanks Julien Smith, and others!)

I’ve noticed that when the ping hits and we stop what we’re doing to explore something else, it’s rarely a one-step process. Let me explain that by reminding you of your days of studying in a library. One minute you’re reading your book or scribbling on a page, then something distracts you, you look up and the spell is broken. It’s a one-step thing. You’re working, you look up, now you’re not working.

With electronic devices it tends to be a two or three step process. You stop what you’re doing, you click on something new, you wait for it to launch, then you’re off on another path. Sometimes you have to complete another step, press another button, enter a password etc. This is actually great because it creates some space for The Pause. And what is The Pause? It’s that moment when you realise when you’ve been pinged and you hold back before you commit to the distracting activity.

At first, it can be difficult to always do the right thing when you notice The Pause. You’ll probably find you’ll proceed to checking your email or Twitter or the news or whatever it is. But over time, you’ll begin to notice that you always have a Pause. And some of the time, you can actually back away from what you were going to do and go back to your work. The more you do this, the more strength you will build (some call this discipline or willpower) and you will be more likely to feel The Pause and then go back to work.

Environment matters a lot too. The more distractions that are within eyeshot, the worse the ping will be. All forms of reminders or alerts, apart from those which signal an appointment, are bad news. They are the highest form of the ping. As far as I know, it’s possible to disable all of these alerts. If they’re pinging you, get rid of them.

I’m learning a lot by working with a couple of our Smarter Egg circles on this topic. This stuff sounds so easy but it trips most of us up, most of the time.

(Image credit to Claudia Regina via Flickr)


A useful pause before you press ‘go’

I’m continuing to build up ideas for suitable practices and rituals to get the working day off to a great start. I’ve found useful habits for keeping the momentum going and for prioritising.

Now, I’m changing gears a bit, slowing it down and getting into a more reflective mood.

I’ve never been much of a ‘touchy-feely’ person. I’ve tended to just get on with stuff and deal with whatever came up. I found that I developed some touchy-feely muscles when qualifying as an executive coach. I had to get comfortable supporting someone when they moved into an introspective, reflective space.

I’m no longer ‘weirded out’ by it but I guess I still have my limits!

So, here’s something that I tried a couple of years ago at a time when I was struggling a little to build momentum behind my work and business. I’m not sure where I got the idea or the inspiration from but I developed a list of ‘reflections’ with which to start the day. I printed them out on a page and kept it near my desk so I spent a few minutes looking at them and thinking about them before whirring into action.

Here is what was on that page:

Sense of urgency
My time is not infinite
Today will never come again
Now is the time to act
I am at my best when I move with purpose

Clarity of purpose
Why am I doing what I’m doing?
What are my highest priorities?
What do I need to do today?

Self-belief & confidence
I believe in my own capabilities and skills
I am an accomplished, confident and assured professional
Whatever it is, I can handle it

Focus on achievement
It feels great when I accomplish something!
What am I going to achieve today?
What am I going to achieve this week?

Fun and enjoyment
It’s great to be able to choose what I do!
How can I have fun doing what I do today?

It’s interesting looking back on that now. Some of the things that were important to me then are no longer so. I can see a clear development in my confidence and clarity about what I’m doing. And I’m immediately curious as to what might be on my list now should I try to develop another one. And I guess in the spirit of the Effectiveness Project, I probably should!

If you had a list like this, what would you have on it?

If you’re spinning plates, keep ’em spinning

I tend to operate by spinning many plates at once. I’m not the kind of person who has one single focus and spends all of their time immersed in that. Given that I am actively managing and growing a business and working hard to delight multiple clients, it’s inevitable that I have a number of projects ongoing at any one time.

Sometimes, it can be hard to keep them all going. A setback in one can derail another. But here’s something that I’ve found to be very useful as a daily practice, whether it’s done at the start of the working day or at the end, with a view to teeing up the work for the following day.

Identify the next tangible action for each significant project and do what you have to do to get that done.

This is a powerful ritual on two fronts. First, it ensures that I’m making progress on my most important projects every day. It generates a real sense of momentum. Momentum generates more energy and more self-belief. Secondly, it forces me to think, at least daily, about what the next physical action is for those key projects. Sometimes we can get bogged down when we’re not clear on what the next step is, and most of the time that’s a function of our avoidance of hard questions and/or clear thinking.

A quick note: I use this for my ‘significant’ projects. Everyone will have their own definition of this. At present, I have five. All of those involve serving fee-paying clients. At times, I might have one or two less, or maybe a couple more. But once you go beyond that number, I think your focus will suffer. As it happens, per the GTD definition, I have approximately fifty projects defined. But it doesn’t bother me if some of these are left untouched for several days.

Daily progress on my most significant projects, with clarity of thought and purpose. Any ritual that produces that is worth the effort.

A question to start your working day

My immediate focus for my Effectiveness Project is to develop practices and rituals that make a real, positive difference to my work.

I’ve tried a bunch of different things over the years for starting the working day the right way. I’m going to revisit many of these in the next few days and will share them here.

This may be the simplest thing you can do: ask yourself the question,’if I could only achieve one thing today, what is it that would give me the greatest satisfaction at the end of the day?’

If you can find an answer to that question, the obvious thing to do is to start working on it right away. Make it the very first thing on which you take action.

And be smart about it. This isn’t a ‘world hunger’ question. This refers to specific tasks, projects or problems that are occupying your mind or are standing in the way of greater progress.

Funnily enough, it’s not always easy to find an immediate answer to this question. And maybe that’s why the question is so powerful. It forces us to check in on what our real priorities are.

Is there an effectiveness equation?

Mathematical equations are a wonderful thing. They are elegant and help us explain relationships in the physical world.

So, I was fascinated to read of Chip Conley’s new book ‘Emotional Equations‘. I had heard about it recently but was captivated yesterday by Bob Sutton’s review of it. It’s on my list of books I want to read now. This list is longer than it’s ever been!

It also got me thinking about the application of equations to the area of effectiveness and especially if there is, at the elemental level, an effectiveness equation. I think there is. And I think it’s the relationship between our desired outcome and what we actually achieve.

One thing still grates with me. I’ve written before about how it makes no sense to have effectiveness greater than 100%. This equation seems to suggest it’s possible to ‘over achieve’.

Just goes to show how difficult it is to whittle down our complex world into self-standing equations.

Knowing what to do when the game changes

I believe knowing what to do is as important as knowing how to do it when it comes to effectiveness.

David Allen, of GTD fame, often uses the image of the martial artist when speaking of the ideal state of mind and of preparation for tackling the world of work. I’ve never practiced any form of martial arts (although I do have a black belt in Lean Six Sigma – how wonderfully geeky of me!) but yet I get exactly what he’s talking about.

It’s about knowing what moves make sense in response to a particular challenge and it’s about having the presence of mind to respond appropriately.

For example, today I have a number of meetings arranged and got a late message this morning asking for one to be deferred. On another day, I might have been pissed off about this and focused on the likely waste of time that the postponement had caused. I may even have jumped onto Twitter and asked if anyone was up for a cuppa.

But, today, I was fine with it. That’s because I am clear on exactly what I need to be doing for the next few days work-wise and I had all the necessary tools with me (phone, laptop, notes, book etc.). It was just a fast, seamless change of focus and no real loss of time or energy.

So next time a change of plan causes you to have either a negative reaction or derails your productivity, stop and think about it. It probably means that you have work to do on figuring out what is the best use of your time and ensuring that you have the capability to act on it at a moment’s notice.

Do you think you’re not resilient or do you have an egg/basket design problem?

There are many traits that combine to determine our effectiveness and one such critical trait is resilience.

When I think of resilience, I think of our capability to bounce back from adversity. I think of an appropriate response to failure, and success. I think of our ability to persist when there are plenty of reasonable excuses to quit.

I used to think that resilience was a function of character. Some people are resilient, others aren’t. But now I’m not so sure. I’ve come to learn that our ability to cope is as much a function of how we design our approach to our work as any other factor.

If we let ourselves get into a situation where proverbially all our eggs are in one basket, then we may have a problem. If we’re over-dependent on winning a single client, or landing a particular job, or being assigned to a certain project, then it will be tough to handle the situation if it doesn’t work out.

The alternative is to distribute our ‘risk’ across multiple opportunities. If the client doesn’t sign up, then we can work with others. If we don’t get this job, then we can look at other options. If we’re not on this project, then we’ll prepare for a better one.

This is very much common sense. But we often lose sight of it. Experts in happiness speak of the importance of having a balanced approach to life. If we have strength in our work, our relationships, our family, our friends, our activities, then difficulties in any one of these at any time can be supported by the others. When people become overly focused in one area, then they are less resilient in times of crisis.

The same principle applies to our work. If we allow ourselves to get into a position of scarcity, where it’s all or nothing, then we’re at risk. Many gurus talk about abundance and the belief that there’s always potentially enough for everyone. And I think they’re right.

We will be more resilient, and likely more successful, if we develop our capability to work with multiple clients, if we grow our skills so that we’re capable of different roles and if we develop the reputation that will have us in demand for many different projects. This is often a conscious choice, a careful design rather than an accidental characteristic.

But, but, but…

It is possible to take this to an extreme. Some are guilty of hiding away from difficult decisions and clear thinking by pursuing so many opportunities that they have the convenient excuse of not having the time to do anything different. Try to avoid having all your eggs in one basket but equally, don’t keep endlessly adding to your collection of baskets.