Graham Allcott is the author of the global best-seller, How to be a Productivity Ninja, and the founder of Think Productive, one of the world’s leading providers of personal productivity training and consultancy. Graham recently sat down with us to share his thoughts on improving productivity and how leaders can help achieve that goal.
Tell us a little about your background. How did you come to focus on the concept of productivity?
I started down this path because I realized I wasn’t very good at it! I’m not a naturally organized person; my work style is something along the lines of “instinctive crazy-making strategic flake,” so finding some systems, habits, and a mindset that really helped ME with productivity was the first step. From there, it seemed kinda obvious to teach other people – partly because I was so excited to have “solved” productivity for myself, and partly because my own natural aversion to structures, lists, and so on meant I could really easily relate to others when teaching it.
I guess the bigger picture here too is that I’m really ambitious. I want to change the world and I care passionately about social justice issues, so when your work has a real meaning to you, you really want to do as much of it as possible as easily as possible.
On your website, you call yourself “The Original Productivity Ninja.” Could you elaborate a bit on this philosophy?
Well, the “original” part is the fact that my company, Think Productive, has a whole bunch of “productivity ninjas” around the world who run workshops for companies and individuals, and lots of people who have either read the book or been through our stuff call themselves productivity ninjas too. We’re on a mission to recruit an army of ninjas!
The “Productivity Ninja” philosophy is really about the mindset and characteristics you need to achieve great productivity. It’s about recognizing the importance of Zen and being in the moment to do your best work, and being prepared, stealthy, ruthless, and weapon-savvy. And it’s also about trying to be a ninja instead of trying to be a superhero: there are no special powers or secret sauce. It’s about doing the simple things well, and recognizing that ninjas are human. We all screw it up sometimes, and that’s OK!
Given that Think Productive has offices around the world, have you noticed any differences in the productivity challenges faced by people and companies in different countries?
The challenges are basically the same: people have too many commitments and emails, they feel under pressure, and they can seriously improve their productivity by thinking about how they manage their attention. What can be different around the world is some of the styles and cultural approaches: Canadians are generally more process-driven, Americans are often more ambitious or optimistic, the Brits are hung-up and over-polite, and the Australians have a great “no-bullshit” approach and are really focused because they want to get it all done so that they can go home and enjoy the evening sunshine. All cliches, I know, but as I travel around the world, all true. And that’s why I love my job, and it’s what makes this subject so fascinating to me.
What are some of the most popular myths about improving productivity?
One of the biggest things here is the idea of multi-tasking. It sucks, but all the old time management books basically promoted it as a great thing. But it’s far better to have your focus on one thing at a time and reduce the number of distractions you experience in the day.
The other thing that I get very worked up about is some people’s over-reliance on gadgets and technology. I have people tell me they’ve spent a whole day moving their lists from one to-do list app to another and they expect me to be impressed that they’re using the coolest app. The same is true of people who waste three days of their life in a line to get the latest version of the iPhone, when really the additional productivity or lifestyle benefits of the new phone are quite marginal. Productivity isn’t a status symbol; it’s a means to getting more good stuff done in the world.
What do your clients tell you is the biggest “time-suck” for business leaders and managers today?
Emails and meetings. I think both have the ability to be great substitutes for clear-thinking. They’re a great way to pass the buck or muddy the waters, too.
So what really matters is setting good boundaries and, as a culture, asking good questions: “at what point do we NEED a meeting?”, “What’s acceptable and what’s rude to be asking on email?”, “How do we limit the email-distraction so that more of the emails in your inbox are things that actually matter to you?” These are questions that go beyond one person, and require leaders to really set the right expectations from the top of an organization.
Do many business leaders have trouble delegating tasks, which in turn reduces their productivity? What is your philosophy about delegation?
My personal philosophy is to delegate as much as possible of the things that don’t explicitly need me. That way, I can focus my own time and attention on the things where I best add value. And this is true of everyone in my team, too. Elena, my COO, will often get me involved in drafting quick copy if it’s a strategically-important email, because it takes me five minutes but would take her an hour. And likewise, anything to do with contracts and spreadsheets that would take me half a day, she eats for breakfast.
For me, that goes beyond delegating based solely on seniority – it’s about where we both add value. And in lots of organizations, I think there’s a lack of understanding about people’s uniqueness, weakness and sometimes even freakiness; it’s important to spend time acknowledging and celebrating differences because that aids communication and ensures that a team is more than the sum of its parts.
How does being an effective corporate leader help improve productivity among the employees at a company?
It’s everything! It’s knowing where the moving parts are moving, setting the motivation, making sure people have the tools they need to be brilliant, being clear on expectations… all these things are fundamental to driving productivity. Of course, leadership is about setting the direction and being bold, but it’s also about listening, being humble, looking for the clues and the gifts that your team gives you, and being agile enough to react to those things. Good leaders are constantly adjusting things and constantly focusing, ultimately, on productivity.
In your podcast series, Beyond Busy, what have you learned about productivity from the CEOs, athletes, public figures, and others that you have interviewed?
Wow, so many things. I think my big conclusion so far from having sat down with about twenty high achievers from all walks of life for an hour or more is that humans are weird. We all have different motivations. We all try and tell ourselves that we’re not that weird or explain ourselves in certain ways. And I think what I’m really appreciating is that sense of difference. There really is – so far, anyway – no one secret formula to define happiness and success. Happiness comes in all shapes, sizes, and volumes.
What kind of feedback have you received from your clients or readers of your books about your suggestions regarding how to improve productivity?
What seemed to really strike a chord with the book was the idea that you don’t need to be perfect – or even aim for perfection. I think a lot of the books I’ve read on the subject assume a starting premise that the author is a guru, the reader is a moron, and if the reader can just learn to be perfect like the guru, it’ll all be fine. My book starts by saying we should all ignore the idea of perfection because it’s fundamentally dangerous to our self-esteem and progress. I am open about the fact that I know the things that make me more productive, but that having the knowledge doesn’t mean I don’t screw up sometimes or have an unproductive day.
A lot of procrastination comes from the desire to make something perfect, when making it good and then moving on to the next thing is actually much more productive. Perfectionism is often so ingrained in us from school, it’s no wonder it’s hard for lots of people to shake it off.