Interview with Graham Allcott

Graham Allcott — №13 with Graham Allcott

Graham Allcott: I have been writing for the Productive! Magazine for a while, it has been pretty interesting. Folks might have seen some of my articles in previous issues. I run a company in the U.K. called Think Productive. We run productivity workshops with whole range of organizations, with big business like eBay and Heineken, with some government organizations, and charities as well. Before focusing on productivity I set up a couple of charities, I was in a mindset of “wanting to change the world” and that has always been a big thing for me. So helping people to really do great work is really what I’m most passionate about.

Michael Sliwinski: And with that in mind, you just published a book about being a productivity ninja.

Graham: Yes, the focus on the book is on real “ninja traits” and how we can use them to be more productive. All of our trainers at Think Productive are called “productivity ninjas”. As the book has been developed we really wanted to pin that down to what it actually means to be a productivity ninja. So there are about nine different characteristics I mentioned in the book.

Michael: I love the book. Totally recommend it. To me a ninja is a super hero without real super-powers who can just by practice and focus can get to places (or “hack” them) that a normal person would not get. Let’s start with the first trait of a ninja.

Graham: First characteristic is zen-like calm. So really being present in the thing you’re doing. You want to avoid distractions, especially by all the other things you could be doing at that time… and also about the times when you are really under pressure, maybe you have a deadline coming up, that sort of thing, you don’t even think about eating or emails or about what is going to happen next in the rest of your world. You are really focused on just being in that one thing.

Michael: Totally. Continuing this, let’s talk about “ruthlessness” (the second ninja trait) as I think the art of saying ‘no’ is one of the most important skills that we can learn right now.

Graham: Absolutely, you know, this kind of old school time management approach is, first thing in the morning you collect all your letters and they land on your desk, and you deal with them and the impact they make on your choices during your day. And then you work through most important stuff in the morning, medium stuff in the mid day and early afternoon and the kind of easy and less vital in the afternoon.

And the world doesn’t really work like that now, because we’ve got not just email, but we’ve got Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and all these other tools that are constantly asking for attention, trying to connect us back into the other sources of information that are around. So there are constant choices to be made and constant uncertainty about “am I doing the right thing?” and within that lies constant distraction.

So, I think being really ruthless around what you engage in, saying 'no’ to other people is definitely part of it but saying 'no’ to yourself and having that discipline around your attention is vital as well.

Michael: You devote an entire chapter in your book to “doing email like ninja” and I totally agree with that… as people still don’t understand the difference between “checking email” and “processing email”…

Graham: When people talk about getting their inboxes to zero, for me that’s the beginning of the game and not the end. You get your inbox to zero so that you can get out of email onto other things and get focused on those other five or six actions that you have to take, you know, from what was 300 emails in the inbox.

There are a lot of organizations around the UK where they do their 9—5 jobs, they are on email the whole day, and then they have an American parent company and as they leave their offices at 5 o'clock, America wakes up, so suddenly they then have all the iPhone or Blackberry messages coming in all evening. So I think there is a lot to be said around trying to create sort of team environments where you can talk about what are the ground rules around email.

When is it acceptable to be completely off-line? Are you actually supposed to be responding that evening? Is that required in your job? Guess what, it is usually the junior people that believe this is really important … and the senior people go like “dude, no, go to the theatre, have your evening”. So culture can very easily get created in quite accidental, but unhealthy ways, I think.

Michael: One of the other traits of the ninja is “camouflage” and I’m also trying to teach folks in my company about it and about how we can stay away from each other to get our work done.

Graham: Exactly. I was trying to write this book along side running a very busy company and I was struggling to find the time… actually writing is a very particular mindset and it needs a lot of stealth and camouflaging, it needs a lot of taking yourself away, “going dark” as I talk about it in the book; and doing that away from everything else. So I ended up renting a little beach cabana in Sri Lanka and just sitting there with literally no Internet connection. I had a really bad, cheap phone that I’d bought there, which could barely make phone calls and certainly couldn’t do anything more sophisticated than that.

I spent a lot more time thinking about attention as result of that. And so when I came back from that trip, I was like “how can I replicate that whole thing of it being just about me and me being just much more mindful, rather then me being more connected and distracted and all that sort of stuff”?

At about 9 am at home my Internet connection goes down automatically, I turn my phone into the airplane mode, so I’m literally cut off. The idea is that for the morning it’s all about me doing the thing, and creating and all the stuff that really requires me to be in that mindset. Then in the afternoon (around 1 pm) I get to the office, and when I’m in the office I kind of look the other way. So I would feel it would be unreasonable to do all of that in the morning and be ignoring all the other stuff that is going on, and then turn up at the office and say “I don’t have time right now, I’m busy doing something” So while at the office I’m just available. It becomes more about me facilitating other people’s work at that stage.

Graham talking to a woman

Michael: And the funny thing is that when you set these rules, people respect them… and love them. They know for a fact when you are “in the dark” and when you are “for them” and thus they are happy that at certain point in time they’ll be able to have access to you.

Graham: Absolutely. And let’s take this even further. Just look at “the law of diminishing returns in productivity”. You know the original Ford studies about how to reach the ultimate productivity of employees in car plants. You know all that 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, two days off, let them rest and come back and they will be productive and we’ll count that from there. The reason why you have the weekend is that it is the best sort of cycle to be on. To get you rested and get you ready for Monday.

A lot of the studies now are saying that whereas in the old industrial age that law would kick in after 37.5 hours — in the kind of work we are doing right now, when we are using our brains rather then our hands, that law of diminishing returns sets in much earlier, typically about 30 hours. So if you are thinking about what this means, it means that we should really be thinking toward working 4 day a week and having 3 days off. So we started doing that within Think Productive, where we actually still do 35.5 hours but the team has 4 slightly longer days and then they work one Friday in four to top off the hours.

For the rest of that time it’s a 4-day-week. And just having Friday as the day when you do your chores, and you know get that thing from the shop or pick up your dry-cleaning and then having two days of proper rest. You know how many times we have a weekend when half the weekend is taken up by shopping and doing chores and all this other stuff and then you go 'it’s Monday again?!?“. So having a 4-day week and a 3 day weekend, we have found is just what kept people really fresh and engaged, and it is a much nicer balance I think.

Michael: That’s really interesting. For me, another great productivity boost was switching my "working positions” from sitting to standing and back. Every day I work a few hours sitting, a few standing and change them often. I love it.

Graham: There is a whole chapter in the book about attention management and a big part of that is the physical, how to manage your brain. Your brain is a tool, it needs management, it needs nutrition and it needs air, and it needs sleep and all these things that are going to make it work, and I think that a big part of this is, what I call 'change the view’. People who share an office with me know that I rarely sit still for more than about half an hour or 40 minutes. I go grab an apple, or just put the kettle on… that moving around I think is really the key to keeping you thinking and to freshen up your thinking.

Changing the view physically is helpful as well. So maybe having an afternoon a week where you go work with the really beautiful view outside or where, if I have phone calls I try and batch those things together, so I maybe got an hour and a half for the phone calls and then I can do that when I’m walking along… I think keeping your environment fresh does really help.

Michael: Exactly. To wrap this up, let’s talk about this great misconception that many folks still have — the belief that we can still multi-task. We kind of can, but we shouldn’t. All we should do really is mono-task, just like you say in the book.

Graham giving a speech

Graham: We have had this one person on our workshops who was quite resistant to the idea of mono-tasking, saying “I’ve been doing great multi-tasking this whole time”. Well, on our workshops part of what we do is to also sit at people’s actual desks. So I’ve said, let’s look at your computer and when she unlocked the machine, the 1st thing we saw on the screen were 9 different windows from 9 different half finished emails. And I just went “Do you see that? That’s multi-tasking, how many of those are actually finished?”

It is actually about getting really focused on one thing and pushing through whatever that resistance is, pushing through whatever that uncertainty is, and just going “I need to solve it before I move on”. And I think that sometimes we do the stuff that is less important as a distraction to feeling like we are being busy.

Michael: Let’s finish this up with the “hacking” mindset of the ninja. I like to hack my “computer workflow” by working on the iPad only and sending stuff to these other computers that do things for me. I love the mindset of “hacking processes” and “hacking workflows”.

Graham: Sometimes you just have to hack your thinking. Like having a checklist to bring you back to really smart thinking even when your brain isn’t set up to do smart thinking. So I have a daily review checklist and a weekly review checklist that are both set up to guide me through thinking what I have already done so I don’t need to do it again.

The same with meetings - how do we make the time that we’re spending in meetings actually useful? So I think the stuff you can do to actually hack your meetings would be things like rather then scheduling the meeting for 30 minutes, schedule it for 23 or 24 and suddenly that creates a different expectation.

We’ve worked with a guy who does a lot of facilitation with groups like the UN and fair trade foundations stuff and he was saying that he had this particular meeting where the purpose of the meeting was to review a policy around safe-housing within a governmental organization, and so the title of that meeting was something along the lines “come along and let’s review this safe-housing policy” — even the invitation sounded really dull. As the purpose of this policy actually was to give the tenant in these housing quiet enjoyment. So we just changed the name of the meeting to be called “the quiet enjoyment meeting”. It really reminded them of the purpose all they way through.

In my book, one of the ninja traits is unorthodoxy, and I think that for me a lot of those hacks are really about just thinking about doing things in a slightly different way and maybe not using that most direct route but finding a little shortcut or finding something that feels like, this is an unusual way, but it actually might work.

Michael: That’s exactly my thinking. Thanks so much for doing this and again, for writing your fantastic ninja-themed productivity book. Where can folks get it?

Graham: My new book is called “How to Be a Productivity Ninja?”, it’s available at Amazon, as a physical book as well as kindle and also we are selling the ebook version. So all the sales from the ebook go to a charity called “Read International”, so the idea is for every time you buy a digital book that at least five real books will land in hands of Tanzanian school kids.

Graham's book

Graham Allcott

Graham Allcott is the author of “How to be a Productivity Ninja” and the founder of Think Productive, one of the UK’s leading productivity training companies, helping organizations across Europe survive information overload and get more done with less stress.

Follow @grahamallcott on Twitter Visit Think Productive website