Graham Allcott, author of Productivity Ninja and Knowledge Ninja, podcaster and CEO and founder of Think Productive, a consultancy firm that offers productivity coaching, workshops and training to a whole host of corporations and charities including JP Morgan, Ebay, Vodafone and Paypal joins us at QUAKE Books HQ to talk about the art of stealth productivity! So without further ado let’s learn the secret of being a successful productivity ninja…
1) How did you become aware that it was attention not time that really mattered when it came to productivity?
Well, I first became aware of the importance of attention when I realised that I wasn’t actually that great at productivity. I had my own weaknesses with it and quickly recognised that my main issue was that I was often unfocused. This inability to focus led me to return to the office over the weekend to solve the rapidly growing mound of emails and other workloads I couldn’t get finished during the week.
Knowing I had to change this reality, I started to read old school time management books including Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. These books were very good for their time and helped people to manage the office well when the letters and other tasks were provided first thing in morning and an office (or any other) worker had to simply complete those tasks by the end of the day, or at least most of them, before the next lot of letters came in at 9 am the next morning.
But, they were written before information overload happened and when you didn’t have to think too much about attention, how to maintain it and protect it. Even David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, which inspired me, was written when email was a 20-a-day problem not a 200-a-day problem! He does cover attention but not how we must protect it and screen ourselves from a whole host of distractions.
In writing my book Productivity Ninja and running my consultancy business, I came up with the concept of proactive attention and the need to really optimise those two to three hours when you are at your best. The frequency of information can be managed once you understand that these hours are where most of your productivity gains can be obtained. So if your 10.30 am is managed well the rest doesn’t matter so much and your level of productivity when you are exhausted at 4 pm becomes irrelevant.
2) In your two most important books, Productivity Ninja and Knowledge Ninja what or who inspired the “ninja” in the title? Are you a kung-fu fan?
[Laughing] No, I am not a kung-fu fan and I actually know very little about ninja culture! The inspiration occurred when I started to think about mindset, which I think is more important than individual tools or techniques, and started to pull together the kind of characteristics that create a great mindset: ruthlessness, unorthodoxy etc. These features are discussed frequently in Think Productive workshops and I go into depth about them in both my books. One of the characteristics, mindfulness, came about as a direct resulted of the month-long sabbatical I took in Sri Lanka to write the first book. It was there I met a Buddhist monk who taught me the art of mindfulness and mediation, which I weave into the book and which is an important element in productivity. That one was a bit of a gift!
The origin of the “ninja” goes right back to the origin of Think Productive. As we launched in April 2009, during the height of the economic crisis, we needed to overcome the economic downturn just to survive as a business. We also had to tackle a problem of bias against training and consultants that was prevalent at the time. So we got creative and decided that we would come up with a list of interesting sounding job titles that we could print on our business cards to get potential clients intrigued in our services and vision. We came up with loads of different options, like ‘Productivity Wizards’ and ‘Office Doctors’ but it was really the ‘ninja’ idea that stuck. My card, for example, said Graham Allcott, Productivity Ninja. The idea was to make sure they were not only eye catching but really good conversation starters.
I had just read Seth Godin’s Purple Cow and the take home message was “don’t play it safe.” Well, when I thought about it there was no benefit in playing safe as we had no money and therefore nothing to lose, so we picked the most daring one, and that was how we started using ‘Productivity Ninja’ in the business.
So yeah the Productivity Ninja Workshop, a 90 minute seminar came first, and then developed further into our central character.
3) What kinds of people would benefit from your book Productivity Ninja?
Anyone who feels stressed and overwhelmed in their job, especially if it is linked to knowledge creation and people management. Overwhelmingly, my book speaks to office workers. Saying that, I do have a friend who is a stone mason and who in his non-working time works as a political campaigner. So there is no reason to focus only on work issues as life is more than work and my book’s lessons equally apply to personal life! Being productive is a life lesson after all!
Knowledge Ninja is a studies skills book, suitable for 14 years old and above. It looks at the psychology of learning and includes a chapter on how to improve memory and survive exams.
4) Why do you think the concept of multitasking became so embedded into the way we work even though it was meant only to be applied to computers? And why do you hate it so much?
I have a funny relationship with multi-tasking. Society does too: When a baby is a few months old the parents, typically and especially the mother, have to multitask. They have to be able to attend to the baby and tidy-up the house. There are just times in your life where you naturally have to do more than one thing at once. This isn’t a problem if one is predominantly a mental activity and the other one is a physical activity but in today’s economy we are supposedly multi-tasking six or seven mental tasks in the office and dealing with multiple enquiries at the same time. The problem is 52 web browsers half attended to and work half done just means lots of work to keep track of, and still nothing actually done!
I think we like the idea of “multi-tasking” because it gives us the impression of efficiency and it has a novelty to it, making us feel productive. I also think that people fall into it by accident or are requested to do many things at the same time, like write this report and please send this email etc. It has therefore got more difficult to monotask and you really have to be dedicated to pursuing it by practicing saying “no”. I hope my book can help people say “no” when it really is the best path of action! So hence why the mindset part of ‘Productivity Ninja’ matters more to me than the tools: you have to really PLAN monotasking, whereas multi-tasking lands in your lap and is the default setting if you don’t do anything about it. It’s a huge inefficiency.
5) Being a football fan would you say Leicester City won the Premier League title because they learnt how to be more productive? What was their secret?
I think their success came from a “perfect storm” scenario. Chelsea were awful, Man City were complacent and coasting, Man U were in transition and Arsenal were their ever-predictable selves. The tide parted and they took the remarkable opportunity by both hands. They made their own luck, too, of course. No one had an answer to their tactics and in particular to their striker Jamie Vardy’s pace and they didn’t have to deal with many injuries.
In terms of team productivity, Leicester soaked up the pressure, had good energy, were well-drilled and particular potent in the final 10 minutes of the game when other teams were found lacking.
Secretly, I just wish it had been my team Aston Villa that won the league, so I can’t just be happy for them!
6) Seeing that this is QUAKE Books, do you have a QUAKE Book Graham?
Well, I already mentioned the importance of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Getting Things Done. Another important book for me was Seth Godin’s Linchpin. This one is a productivity book with real soul and heart. Others can be really quite dry/technical.
Non-productivity wise, I must say that Richard Yates’ American novel Revolutionary Road is an absolute QUAKE Book. It’s about a young couple who move into a house on a street called Revolutionary Road, but is really about all the social climbing, aspiration, the class system and the idea of keeping up with the Jones’. Those are things I think about a lot: you know, what makes people tick, really. And my new podcast ‘Beyond Busy’ is really an extension of that. There’s also going to be a book called ‘Beyond Busy’ too, which is aimed at people who feel trapped on the hamster wheel, who wish to improve their work/life balance and their productivity, but also want to figure out what really makes them happy.
Thank you Graham for taking the time to speak to us at QUAKE Books. I really appreciate your insights as I described in my review of your book. So Agents, if you haven’t taken a look at the review and Graham’s Beyond Busy Podcast please do, especially if you are looking to brush up on your ninja skills!