Good Habits and Productivity Tips

Special Edition: №1–14

Michael Bungay Stanier

What I’ve found out after reading your book is that to do great work, you should decline good work. How to do that? How do you convince yourself to ditch good work and start great work? Can you give examples from your life how you’ve declined good work to do great work?

Michael: It’s one of the deep truths about doing more Great Work. You need to decide on what to say Yes to … and what to say No to.

There are two challenges with that — saying No to yourself and saying No to others.

Saying No to yourself is difficult because Good Work is a comfortable place to hang out and be. Even though Great Work is our where the more meaningful, more engaging work lives - we’re constantly pulled back to the familiarity and certainty of doing Good Work. It is an act of courage to decide what Good Work you want to say No to, so you can free up more time, space and energy to do Great Work.

It is also difficult to say No to most people, especially colleagues in the work place. Here’s my best tip for this. Think of your goal not as saying No – but as “saying Yes more slowly.” Part of what trips us up is how our default is set to saying Yes and saying Yes quickly. If you can just slow things down a little - and the best way to do this is to get curious and ask questions about what’s being asked of you — then you’ll end up not committing yourself to so much.

We very often tend to think about an idea and just go into action, but you’re asking this question: “what is possible?” to make us think of coming up with different possibilities before we go into action. Can you tell us about your recent challenges and what new possibilities have you come up with it?

Michael: Rather than tell you about my challenges and the possibilities around them — which is probably more interesting to me than anyone else — let me suggest my five favourite questions for generating possibilities.

The first is to ask, after you’ve defined your challenge and the ideas you already have. Ask yourself “and what else?” until you run out of ideas. That’s always a good start and you almost always have more ideas than you thought.

Then ask these three questions:

Those three questions will help generate an interesting range of possibilities. And then you just need to ask yourself: What WILL you do?

Leo Babauta

I know from your blog that you’re an early riser and you’re waking up at crazy 4.30 am. What do you do that early in the morning? What does your morning look like?

Leo: I really love the early morning hours — a time when most of the world around me is asleep, when I can enjoy the quiet and read or meditate or exercise or write, and really focus.

My morning routine changes frequently, as I like to change things up. Also, I should note that I wake at different times — sometimes 4 a.m., sometimes 4:30 or 5, sometimes as late as 6 or 7 if I stayed up late for some reason. Right now, my morning routine is: wake, have coffee and read, meditate (sometimes) and give gratitude, write, exercise, then do email and Twitter, then write again.

I’m struggling to become an early riser myself but I always fail (after several attempts). The main problem is family support (lack of it — my wife likes to stay up late) and even if I do wake up early, I struggle to get anything done, I’m sleepy… can you help?

Leo: It’s tough if your spouse doesn’t support you, or if you have different sleeping schedules. It’s really important that you enlist her help, tell her what you want to do and why and ask for her to help you succeed. She shouldn’t have to change her pattern, but maybe she can help you somehow.

As for being sleepy when you awake … what helps me is adjusting gradually, by waking (say) 15 minutes earlier until I adjust to that, and then another 15 minutes earlier and so on. If I’m really sleepy, it helps to get some coffee in me and have a gradual period where I wake up and read and allow my mind to activate before trying to work. Also, getting to bed earlier helps.

Can you share with our readers your best productivity tricks? Tricks that keep on helping you be productive and that you wouldn’t live without? Things that keep on coming and make the difference? Anything?

Leo: Sure — there are many things I’ve shared on Zen Habits and in my book, The Power of Less, but here are three simple tips that really work for me:

  1. Focus on the most important tasks: pick three Most Important Tasks each day and do those first. It will make you much more effective than trying to tackle everything.

  2. Single-task. Don’t try to do email and write and phone and Twitter and surf the web all at once. Close down everything else, pick on important task to focus on, and really pour yourself into it.

  3. Be passionate about what you’re doing. If you’re not, it’ll be hard to motivate yourself. If you’re excited about your work, you’ll jump out of bed to do it. When you find yourself dreading something, you either need to find a way to get excited about it, or find something else that excites you more.

Miguel Guía

What is your system of productivity like? How do you use it on daily basis?

Miguel: So, to start with I have a notebook always on my table and I write down all the things I want to do on a given day. I do my best to see them all through and if I can’t, I postpone them for the following day.

As I have said before, I write down the topic and the main points of each action, if I have to call I add the phone number, some commentary about the person and the main purpose of the call. Now, at the time of the phone call I have all this information right here in my notebook.

The most important part of my “system” is a blue or green marker — once a task is done, I cross it with the marker. This is very rewarding as it relaxes me as the day progresses to see the page fill in with green.

What tips would you give to people who do not know how to organize themselves and do not know where to start?

Miguel: To organize work well, it is essential to prepare all the topics in the morning and work through them before all the interruptions and daily office life makes you resolve them improperly.

In this life it is all about habits, good ones.. or the bad ones. You just really need to get rid of all those bad habits and pick up new ones that will help you in your path to an organized life. Getting up early, sports and strength of will are always a good start. It’s about a conscious decision how you want your life to be and how we want to live it.

Laura Stack

In SuperCompetent you are talking of six keys that help you be competent, to achieve your goals: Activity, Availability, Attention, Accessibility, Accountability and Attitude.

Laura: So, SuperCompetent is kind of a summary of the work I’ve been doing for the past 19 years and I have found six basic things to be true of people who perform at their productive best.

It all starts with activity. Basically, knowing what you should be working on. And this seems kind of like common sense, but I think it is true for so many of us that have a hundred and seventeen things to do everyday and we often pick incorrectly what it is that we should be doing. So, that’s the first key. What are the activities that need to fill your day?

It’s like with this ladder that you climb up the wrong wall. You climb very nicely, but that’s not the wall you should be climbing, right?

Laura: Sure. We get so occupied by other things that we first have to get back down to the  core of what am I supposed to be doing? Why am I here? What is the ultimate responsibility that I have?

In my company for example, as the president of The Productivity Pro, I’m responsible for building my brand, and for speaking and bringing in the business, and that’s pretty much it. So, if I’m not talking to clients, if I’m not researching, if I’m not writing, if I’m not standing on a platform then I’m not doing my job.

From one of our previous interviewees - Michael Hyatt, I learned a lot about accountability and responsiveness. He said, always, that his key to success was that he was always quick to respond to people.

Laura: It’s hard to do…I know what you are saying. Accountability to me, I define a bit differently, in terms of teams, keeping your commitments, in doing what you said you would do, meeting your deadlines, and always looking for more efficient ways to do things. It’s kind of a state of mind.

Seth Godin

You are starting many things. What kind of tricks do you use that help you follow through with these things?

Seth: I’m not sure it is a trick. I think that the approach that I have is that the resistance to lizard brain is a compass. If it tells me that something is uncomfortable, if it tells me that something is scary then that is exactly what I’m going to do. I look for it as a clue that I’m on the right track.

So it actually suggests to you what to do next?

Seth: That’s right. You know you have this built-in thing that shows you what the world is afraid of. And if you do that you’re probably going to be OK.

When you do want to write and somebody disturbs you or ask you for an interview. What do you do then?

Seth: I mean, if you talk to just about anyone doing a lot of output, they are very good at saying “no”. I feel badly about all the places I can’t go to speak, I feel badly about all the interviews I can’t do and all those people I could reach out and coach or consult, but I can’t do that and do what I’m doing now. So, I don’t do any consulting and I rarely do all the other sorts of things although I’d like to. The discipline of saying “no” becomes really important.

Gretchen Rubin

Yes, I’m really happy about the outcome :-) Now, let’s talk more about productivity. What do you think? If we are more productive, are we happier? Or if we are happier, are we more productive?

Gretchen: I think both things are true. Because I think that when you are happier you are far more energetic and more creative and it is also easier to get yourself to do things that you do not want to do. Because sometimes being productive is being stuck with chores and jobs that you’d rather not do. So, you are more able to take those on. But then I think people do get a real sense of satisfaction from getting something done. And sometimes you can engineer a little mood-boost for yourself by just saying “you know what, I just feel lazy, I’m going to do something that I’ve been putting off and just get it done and get it off my mind, get it off my list" and that can give you that sense of good cheer and energy. So I think you can use it both ways. They feed into each other because they are tied together.

In your book you mention that you finally forced yourself to do those things you had been putting off for a long time. On the other hand we also have to be able to say “no” to things that we shouldn’t be doing anyway.

Gretchen: I think that’s the key thing. It’s not that you should do everything, but that you should figure out what is important to you. Because the one thing that I really can understand from my Happiness Project is that I can only have a happy life on a foundation of my own interests, my own temperament, my own values. But when your day is full of things that you are not interested in, or that you don’t really value you are not going to feel so happy. So a lot of that is really figuring out what are the kinds of things that I should be doing with my time. Not just trying to do everything to make sure that you are doing the right things for yourself. Everybody’s different. So there is no one-size-fits-all answer. You will have to figure this out for yourself.

Jason Womack

The title of your book is quite challenging, because how can your best be better?

Jason: It’s a question I hope more people will ask me. What I do in the book is go through three areas. First we are talking about working smart, then we talk about thinking big and then we talk about making more. What we found in my research is that those three things happen in that order.

Someone who is setting a big goal, who wants to think big… but has their inbox out of control, has their things all over the place, has their mind full with everything…that is, if they are not working smart, they just can’t think big. It’s not mentally or physically possible.

“Your Best Just Got Better” was the title of my blog going back 7 years, I never had an idea it would become a book one day, just the people who I was spending my time with quite frankly were the best. And again, you know this, people who are the best continually go back for re-education, they go back for training, they go back for coaching.

I’ve read somewhere, that 80% of success is showing up.

Jason: And what we can do, and one of the things I teach is underneath each of those three ideas are several indicators. Showing up: showing up on time, showing up prepared, showing up culturally aware, showing up demographically aware…you know I’ve done seminars in different communities where I was the only one like me in the room.

Graham Allcott

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.

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.

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.

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.

Augusto Pinaud

When I made the switch to the iPad I was trying to simplify my set up and I’ve been commenting about this on my blog, how this simplification influenced other areas of my life. You also dedicated several chapters to simplifying in your book. I’d say I enjoy embracing minimalism, to have as little clothes as possible, as little things in the office as possible. I really like your message there to really simplify things and to have a “not-to-do list”, right?

Augusto: Not to have and not to do. You know, I’m careful with the use of the word “minimalism” because there are a lot of people who are going to the extreme. If it works for them, that’s great, but I think that because of that extreme many people who read this might walk away from minimalism.

I believe people should simplify, I believe that you should get rid of most of the junk you have accumulated over the years, and it was actually Patrick Rhone who used the word “enough”. And the first time I heard it, it became common sense to me. I said, “that’s exactly what I want”. It is not an extreme minimalism, I don’t want to go to the extreme like the people who have 30 items. I just want to have exactly what I need and no more.

It’s been a difficult process because you are trained as a kid and growing up to collect stuff. Because, in a way, collecting stuff is a symbol of status. Hey, if you have three cars it means you made it!

There are people who can live with two pairs of shoes and there are people who need five and those are both correct answers. The question is, what is your correct answer and after you discover what it is then aim for it and try to get there.

The “not-to-do” list follows the same path. There are a lot of things that that we do that we shouldn’t — period. For example, I’m now working on redesigning the blog and the web-page. Could I spend the time and money to learn Wordpress well in order to do something that looks decent? The answer is yes. But how many hours is that going to cost me? In my case, an incredible amount. But what if instead of that, I hire someone and use my saved time to write? How about that? There are things you should not do.

I also mention reading. I love to read. I have a yearly goal of reading more than 52 books. I have made myself this goal since 2008 or 2009. Every year I read at least 52 books. And one of my rules is that if I’m reading a book and I don’t like it, I drop it. If I get to a certain point and it’s always around 20% of the book and I don’t get into the book then I drop it. I even encourage people if you get my books and you are 10%, 15% or 20% into the book and you don’t enjoy it, drop the book. Don’t finish reading it. It’s not worth it. There are so many good books out there, why are you going to waste hours of your time on something that is not worth it?

Exactly, people can be offended, because on the computer your email signature can be bigger than the content of the email, right? I also like what you said about the ritual that you have for your “Weekly Review”. You have your special type of coffee there and everything. I read something about this theory of small victories. When you manage to achieve a “small victory”, and then another, you get the momentum and when you get the momentum, you get things done.

Augusto: I’ve been doing that ritual for years. It’s a Venti coffee from Starbucks, I only get it when doing my weekly review. If it happens that I do another weekly review during the week I get that same kind of coffee. I do rituals with a lot of things, because I have discovered that they help me get in the mood much faster. A lot of people have rituals, some of them conscious, most of them are not. If you learn to identify what they are, making your rituals conscious, you are going to be able to get in the mood much faster.

It’s like people who do exercise, I had a friend who would leave work in his gym clothes. What happens is that he drops into gym much more often than before. Usually when going home from work he’d say: “I’m going to stop at the gym” and then in the middle of the way he’d go “Oh, I’m tired, I’ll go to the gym tomorrow”. Now that he started dressing up in his workout clothes and drives with his sneakers on, he said that he’s improved on stopping at the gym by more than 50%. The barrier of entry is lower now that he’s dressed and he goes: “Well, you know I can go now for 5 mins” and that is his trick.

It is something simple, a little ritual, but those tiny tricks really make a huge difference. I have been a big proponent of the iPad as my main machine and one of the fun changes I’ve made when writing is that I only write in plain text. Why? It is simple, if I open a laptop and I open Word or Pages, I start looking at the italics, settings and margins. I waste an incredible amount of time on this instead of writing. With plain text I do not have that option.

Photo: Flickr / Aymer Designz Imagery CC BY-NC 2.0