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Inside the Mind of a Productivity Ninja: Top Productivity Tips for Streamlined Success and Wellbeing

I once had a boss who described me as a ‘machine’.  It was meant as a compliment – and, at the time, I took it as one. It was a nod to the volume of work I could get through, to my ability to always get things finished and to just getting on with stuff without making a fuss.   There’s a whole other article that I need to write that talks about how damaging that mindset turned out to be – to my mental health, eventually my physical health and my willingness and ability to ask for help when things got too much.  Turns out we aren’t machines and that squeezing more and more into an already overloaded schedule, brain and body isn’t the long term answer  – but that is for another day.   

What was true about the machine comment is that being organised is one of my strengths.  As is making the most productive use of the time I have.   So this article is about the productivity tips, systems, and approaches I use to help me day to day.  It just comes with a word of warning – know when you’ve reached your limits.  Being productive will only take you so far.  There comes a point where you must take a step back and re-evaluate whether you are taking on too much.

Productivity Tips – No 1 : Triage and The Two-Touch Rule

How many times do you re-read the same email or message, or pick up the same document from your desk?  You re-open the email, remind yourself what it was about, and then close it again intending to come back to it later.  And we can often repeat this multiple times.

The first of our productivity tips is triage and the ‘Two touch rule’.  This means that most of the time I only look at an email twice. Once when I initially receive it and once when I action it.  The initial read is swiftly followed by one of four actions:

  1. Deleting if it is of no interest or use
  2. Actioning immediately if it is a quick-to-action item (usually less than 2 minutes)
  3. Adding a related item to my ToDo List for dealing with later
  4. Filing it away for later reference

Whether you have a folder system to file your emails is a personal choice. I have one that works well for me and means I can lay my hands on things quickly when I’ve needed it.  Equally, there is a group of people who say there is no point – just use the search function. Both are equally valid – just don’t be the person who swears by no folder structure and then asks their colleagues to resend multiple emails as they can never track them down. 

The golden rule is use a system that works for you and that ensures you aren’t opening the same email multiple times because you’ve forgotten what it’s about or can’t remember whether it has been actioned or not.

Productivity Tips – No 2: Develop a Second Brain

Our brains weren’t evolved to multi-task let alone carry around the volume of data, ideas and tasks we are bombarded with in today’s world.  A second brain is possibly my favourite of all the productivity tips out there.  A second brain is essentially an external, digital extension of our biological memory and offers a solution to our modern struggle with information overload.

By having a reliable external system for capturing, organising, and recalling information – everything from daily to-dos, meeting notes and interesting articles, to insightful thoughts – we free up mental space and reduce cognitive load. The goal is not to replace our organic brain, but to augment it, enabling us to navigate our complex world more effectively.

By offloading the task of remembering onto our second brain, we can focus our cognitive efforts on creativity, problem-solving, and making meaningful connections between different pieces of information.

My second brain is a combination of 4 things. 

  1. to capture and manage all the work-related tasks, projects and ideas
  2. The 2do app for capturing all the non-work and family-related tasks and reminders
  3. Evernote as my repository for all the great articles, posts and content I come across daily that I want to read (stored by topic).  Evernote is also my space to capture great ideas and thoughts as they arise
  4. A decent document filing system so I can track things down. Mine is cloud-based so I can always access things wherever I am and whichever device I am on.

I schedule 10 minutes at the end of each week to file articles or Linked In posts I’ve come across, youTube videos I want to watch later or screenshots I’ve taken of interesting frameworks or infographics later.  This means I can retrieve them easily when the time is right and nothing gets misplaced.

The effectiveness of a second brain system relies heavily on your commitment to using it consistently. Once your brain knows you have a reliable place to capture everything then this will go a long way to stopping it whirring away in the background when you don’t want it to.

Take the time to explore different tools and systems and choose the one that best suits your needs and preferences. By consistently incorporating your chosen system into your daily routine, you’ll maximise its potential to boost your productivity and organisation.

Productivity Tips No 3: Capturing Notes and Actions

In today’s fast-paced work environment, having an efficient note-taking system is crucial for staying organised and productive. I’ve found that handwriting my notes keeps me more engaged during meetings, so typing notes doesn’t work for me,  but I also wanted to avoid accumulating piles of paper so I switched to using a reMarkable, a digital notebook that feels just like writing on paper. With it I can access my notes from anywhere using an app on my phone, which cuts out the need for physical notebooks (but as stationery addict it doesn’t stop me from buying them).

Another productivity hack I use is having a reliable system to capture action items from meetings. As I take notes, I mark actions with “AP” (Action Point) to easily identify them later. After each meeting (or at the end of the day if it has been especially busy), I transfer all items marked with “AP” to my second brain, ensuring nothing gets missed or forgotten.

Productivity Tips – No 4: Systemise Your Routine

One effective way to boost your productivity is by adding structure and automation to our routine tasks and responsibilities. Systemising activities, both professional and personal, streamlines operations, enhances efficiency and leaves room for more cognitive flexibility.

Email communication is one area where this can be highly effective. Instead of drafting each email from scratch, I use templates for frequently sent emails. This practice saves a substantial amount of time and ensures consistency in my communication.

Keeping track of important dates like birthdays and anniversaries can become a hassle amidst a busy schedule so I set annual reminders for important events like birthdays and anniversaries to stay on top of them.  And I use checklists for recurring tasks and activities, such as preparing for a workshop, onboarding a new client, holiday packing or even getting ready for Christmas.  This means I don’t have to waste valuable cognitive space remembering the same things over and over again.  Scheduling recurring invites for meetings, such as 1-2-1s and team meetings also helps and means you aren’t constantly trying to juggle your diary to fit them in.

Systemising these aspects of your life, can help you increase your efficiency and gain a greater sense of control over your daily responsibilities.

Productivity Tips – No 5: Manage those Newsletters

With an abundance of content constantly flooding our inboxes, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The temptation to hit delete may arise, but it’s a shame to miss out on the insightful nuggets that some of these emails contain. To combat this issue, it’s important to develop a process to manage the content you’re genuinely interested in.
First, unsubscribe from any newsletters that don’t pique your interest or provide value. Then, for the ones you want to keep, implement a system to manage them efficiently. For example, I use a filter on my inbox that automatically forwards (and deletes the original) newsletters I know I want to read. These emails are sent to a designated notebook in Evernote, where I can revisit them when I have time to read them thoroughly or file them for future reference. I also forward links to articles, research papers, and LinkedIn posts to the same folder. This approach helps reduce inbox clutter and ensures you don’t miss out on valuable information.

Productivity Tips – No 6: The Friday Review

The Friday Review has become an integral part of my weekly routine, providing both organisation and mental clarity. Every Friday, I pick up my teenage son from school, and we spend a couple of hours at a local café. While he decompresses after a busy week, I carry out a structured process of reviewing my progress, looking ahead at the upcoming weeks , and planning and prioritising.

This ritual is essential for keeping organised and ensuring that I’m focusing on the most important tasks. But perhaps more importantly, it has a significant positive impact on my mental health. The end-of-week review allows me to enter the weekend with a clear mind, confident that everything is in order and ready to be picked up again on Monday morning.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Friday Review, we have a short video that explains the concept in greater detail.

Productivity Tips – No 7: Start your day well

Setting an intention for my days is crucial. I start the day with a clear idea of what I want to focus on and what I need to achieve. I try to make sure there’s time for the important tasks and that what I’m trying to accomplish is realistic given the time available. I also try to build in a buffer for unexpected events.

Setting an intention for how you want to feel throughout the day is worth thinking about too. I’m a big fan of the Emotional Culture Deck, which helps identify the emotions you want to feel to be successful. Once that’s clear, I can implement practices that contribute to those feelings and develop a plan for managing the less positive emotions if and when they show up.

For me, the best days begin with some light exercise. This hasn’t always been the case (partly health-related and partly due to lifelong habits), and it’s still a work in progress. However, I do know that if I postpone the exercise to later in the day, it likely won’t happen.

Productivity Tips – No 8: Match your work to your energy

As humans, it’s inevitable that our energy levels will fluctuate throughout the day. A crucial aspect of productivity is aligning our activities with these energy peaks and troughs.

To achieve this, spend some time reflecting on when you feel most engaged and energetic, and then plan tasks accordingly. For instance, if you’re at your best early in the day, dedicate that time to focused work and try to limit meetings during those hours as much as possible.

Reserve periods of low energy or short breaks between meetings for less demanding tasks, such as handling administrative duties like filing expenses.

One strategy I use is having a list of “train tasks”—tasks I save up for train journeys when I know I’ll have some uninterrupted time in the quiet carriage. I also keep a folder of articles or resources in Evernote, so that I can catch up on reading if I find myself waiting somewhere. By syncing your tasks with your energy levels and optimising your time, you’ll be better equipped to maximise productivity while taking care of your well-being.

Productivity Tips – No 9: Eliminate the Small Obstacles

Pay close attention to the seemingly minor obstacles that hinder your productivity and consume valuable cognitive resources. These nuisances could range from an outdated email address constantly appearing every time you attempt to contact someone—simply remove it from the system to eliminate future distractions—or tasks you consistently delay addressing.

Avoidance is a natural human response to difficult situations, but it can waste considerable cognitive and emotional energy. This avoidance might be subconscious, so make a list of all the tasks you’ve been putting off and analyse the barriers. Graham Allcott, author of The Productivity Ninja, suggests using the DUST acronym to understand the cause of avoidance: Is it D – Difficult, U – Undefined, S – Scary, or T – Tedious? Once you pinpoint the reason, you’ll be better equipped to tackle it. If all else fails, deploy the “Eat the Ugly Frog” method, which involves conquering the most unpleasant task first.

Another common productivity impediment is notifications. I’m a big advocate of disabling them across all apps and email.  I prefer to be in control of what calls on my attention and when.  By addressing these small obstacles, you’ll create a more efficient work environment and boost your overall productivity.

Productivity Tips – No 10: Knowing when to rest

The final of the productivity tips is possibly the most important of all.  Recognising when to rest is an integral component of sustainable productivity. In our fast-paced world, it’s easy to fall into the trap of perpetual busyness. However, this approach often leads to burnout and diminished output over time. Rest, on the other hand, allows our brains to recharge, promotes creativity, and aids in problem-solving. It’s during these moments of pause that our minds process and integrate information, leading to insights and ideas that can boost our performance. Furthermore, rest improves our physical well-being, a cornerstone of sustained productivity.

For me, rest includes spending time with my family, engaging in regular sessions of somatics and yoga Nidra, being on or near water, catching up on my favourite TV programs, reading, listening to music, dabbling in various crafts and building Lego.

I make a conscious effort not to overschedule myself, both in work and leisure. I try to balance my weeks so that busy days travelling and working with clients are offset by time spent alone to recharge my batteries. This is especially important for an introvert.

Holidays are sacred to me. Just like a well-tuned machine, our minds and bodies require downtime to maintain optimal performance. Knowing when to step back, take a breather, and allow yourself a to rest is not a sign of weakness, but rather a strategic move in ensuring long-term productivity and overall wellness.

The importance of rest and recuperation is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way (your body and mind fight back it you push them too hard and refuse to listen – in my case I was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) is a rare autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks and damages healthy nerve cells).  It’s something I’m constantly paying attention to.  I’ve become better at spotting the signs of feeling overwhelmed and taking on too much and taking steps to recalibrate and readjust but it’s still a work in progress.

A final note…

Condensed into one article these productivity tips might sound exhausting, but they’re part of a system I’ve built up over time, and most of it is intuitive now. I tweak it often to ensure it continues to meet my needs. As I mentioned at the outset, it’s essential to heed a word of warning – know when you’ve reached your limits. Being productive will only take you so far. There comes a point where you have to take a step back and re-evaluate whether you are taking on too much rather than seeking another hack or marginal gain to squeeze yet more into your day.

Remember that productivity is not just about accomplishing tasks; it’s also about maintaining a healthy balance. By recognising the signs of overwhelm and stress, you can make adjustments to prevent burnout and ensure long-term success.

So, while implementing any productivity tips, always keep in mind the importance of self-awareness and self-care. After all, the ultimate goal is to create a sustainable and fulfilling life, where productivity is just one aspect of a well-rounded, balanced approach.

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