Seven productivity tips to help you get more done

Work less, worry less and go home early. What’s not to like? 

[Image courtesy of Sébastien Wiertz at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have I ever mentioned that I’m a bit of a language geek? Well I am. In fact, I’m a big language geek. 

Earlier this week, I was having my hair cut and asked the stylist where she came from. Lithuania, she told me. And I was off.

How did the language work? (With incredible complexity) Was it related to Russian? (No) Did it have cases? (Yes) Was it like any other language? (Not really, except Latvian) Did surnames change for women? (Yes, and for unmarried and married daughters too)

The trouble with languages is that there are so many of them to learn, and so little time. I speak French fluently, Italian well and have a smattering of lots of other languages (German, Spanish, Zulu, Afrikaans, Irish and I can even count from one to 20 in Finnish, which is of limited use, but a good party trick). 

Like I say, the problem is time. And then I happened across Olly Richards, who’s fluent in eight languages. So does he have more hours in the day than I do? Or does he speed read? Or have a photographic memory? 

None of the above. He just focuses, and is more productive. He cuts down distractions such as Facebook and maximises his time to maximise his results. I want to take a leaf out of his book – whatever language it’s written in. 

Olly got me thinking about productivity in general, and how it’s easy to let time slip though our fingers without accomplishing anything. Here are some of the things I’ve discovered that help me read more, write more, market more and get more done. 

  1. Set a time limit. This is one of the most effective ones I’ve used. Whether it’s writing a blog post (like this one), or studying vocabulary lists, or doing a marketing blitz, setting yourself a limit helps you focus on doing more in less time. I often wonder how on earth I managed to study all the subjects I did at school without feeling overloaded. The answer came to me the other day: I didn’t have any choice. The bell went, and it was the next period. And the next subject. 
  2. Focus on one thing at a time. This, of course, is directly linked to the last one. If you can take a set time, and a set subject, and work on it and nothing else, you’ll achieve remarkable results. If I’m not getting anywhere with something – a copywriting project, a difficult brief, a marketing quandary – it’s almost always because it’s not getting my full attention. I used to be quite critical of brainstorming sessions in the past, but now realise they work because of the total focus they bring to one topic in a concentrated period of time.
  3. Write out a list by hand every day. This is an old trick that I learned before the age of digital calendars, and which I used for many years. The key thing was not to use the same list as the day before, even if very little had changed. The mere fact of writing it out made it feel real and spurred me into action. I then went entirely digital, but recently rediscovered the joys of a handwritten to-do list. I still have an electronic one, but it’s much longer. The manual one is fresh every day, and written in order of priority. It makes a huge difference to my view of what needs doing and what can wait.
  4. Don’t count your chickens or flog a dead horse. A horribly mixed metaphor, but which is true nonetheless. I’ve lost track of the jobs that were on the brink of coming in but didn’t, the projects that were going to expand but failed to, and the tantalising initial project that never led to the flood of extra work. Plan for the worst-case scenario, and remember it’s never in the bag until it is. And by the same token, recognise when a prospect, project or idea has simply run its course. Tick it off that handwritten to-do list, move on and do something productive.
  5. If something can be done in one minute, do it right now.  This applies to everything, and comes from happiness guru Gretchen Rubin. From making your bed to replying to that email, from ticking it off your to-do list to tidying up your desk, the one-minute rule is a magical cure for indecision, clutter and procrastination. If you can do it in 60 seconds, do it now. You’ll be amazed how you feel afterwards. And if it takes more than 60 seconds, start it anyway and you’ll be carried my the momentum. That’s a complementary trick I learned from artist Betty Edwards, who said that finding time to draw is easy if you start small. Before you know it, you’re in the flow and you’ll continue. 
  6. Takes regular breaks. My friend Francesca reminded me of this golden rule recently. “At least once an hour,” she said in a bossy-but-nice way, “get up, walk around, and reconnect with the world.” How could I say no? So I took her advice, and it made a world of difference. With more air in my lungs, and more blood flowing to my brain, I achieved twice as much in half the time when I got back to my desk. Magic.
  7. Don’t agonise over decisions. Why? Because most are reversible. Because there are lots of other decisions that you need to make. And because that elusive ‘right’ answer you’re searching for actually doesn’t exist, so to it’s best to make a decision and move on. 

These are all small things, but they add up to big results. And big gains. I’m not saying you’ll free up enough time to learn Mandarin, but you might just be able to count from one to 20 in Finnish. 

And with the party season coming up, that’s one skill that could come in very handy indeed. 

Forget price and product. CX is where it's at.

In the end, customer experience is all that matters

[Image courtesy of Alpha at Flickr Creative Commons]

You know how it is when you hear a word for the first time, and then it keeps popping up everywhere? It happened to me a few months ago, when I saw dob somebody in.

It’s Ozzie slang for informing on somebody (he dobbed me in to the teacher), which explains why I wasn’t familiar with it. And the writer wasn’t from Down Under, so he was using it for the novelty value.

And it was certainly novel to me.

But then a strange thing happened. Dob in started appearing in more and more articles I was reading. Either it had gone viral, or I simply hadn’t noticed it before.

Whatever the case, it’s now firmly on my radar. In fact, I found myself using it to a friend last week, whose look of utter bafflement told me that the virus hadn’t become that widespread.

Not yet. Unlike customer experience

Now you CX, now you don’t

Customer experience is nothing new, but it’s recently moved front and centre (much like the expression front and centre has). In fact, I was waxing lyrical about it over the summer, as I undertook a big project on customer care, and its close relation customer experience. 

And now, just like our old friend dob, it’s all over the place. Everywhere I turn, I see something about customer experience. You may remember that my earlier research suggested that by 2020, customer service (and experience) will have overtaken price and product as the ultimate differentiator.

Well just last week, I came across a compelling survey that doesn’t just talk about customer experience in a nebulous, feelgood way. Instead, it slaps cold hard figures on it, suggesting that an improvement in CX at a $1bn company could lead to an $824m increase in revenue over three years.

Stop and read that again. It’s enough to make anybody sit up and listen, isn’t it?

The survey by the Temkin Group is based on 10,000 US consumers and 293 companies across 20 vertical markets, so it’s pretty thorough. And the findings concur with all the others I was poring over in the summer. The bottom line is that customer experience matters  – and it directly affects your bottom line.

Cards, coffee and customers

But it’s often patchy and unpredictable. I was reminded of this again recently by two very different examples of CX.

The first was at Three, the mobile phone operator.

I’d got a new phone – not through them, as it happens – and needed a SIM card cut down from micro to nano size.

On the face of it, everything was against having a good experience. It was a Saturday afternoon, it was a small job, and to be honest, as a pay-as-you-go customer, I’m small fry. I phoned up my local store to see if they could help.

I was blown away.

My new best friend Tom told me to come around whenever I liked. They were open till 6pm, and it would be a a pleasure to help. When I got there, Tom wasn’t available, but his equally friendly colleague smiled and said she could help me out. In fact, everybody was smiling – customers and assistants alike.

Five minutes and nano SIM later, I left the shop marvelling at what a wonderful (and free) experience I’d had. I’ll never look at Three in quite the same way again. And since then, I’ve been telling everybody what happened.

I then went for a coffee at one of the big chains to play with my new phone. And there, it was quite the opposite experience: sullen staff, tables overflowing with trays, and slow, grudging service.

Now the thing is, it’s not normally like this at the other branches I go to. But this one experience has coloured my whole perception of the chain. That’s the power of customer experience.

And whether it’s a £2.50 cup of coffee or free SIM cutting, it all adds up – sometimes, to hundreds of millions in lost, or gained, sales. The companies who get it right will reap the rewards, and the ones that don’t will pay the price.

By the way, in case you’re wondering why I didn’t mention the coffee chain by name, it’s because I know that we all have bad days, so maybe it’s just a blip on the radar. I’ll leave it a while and go back to see if things have changed.

And if they haven’t I’ll dob them in. Defo.

Turn your marketing upside down - and see where it takes you

Why it pays to scare yourself every now and then

[Image courtesy of Pete at Flickr Creative Commons]

A few weeks ago, I caught up with a friend whom I haven’t seen for many years. We’ve sort of stayed in touch on Facebook and Skype, though it’s been mostly fleeting IMs, which aren’t really the same as face-to-face conversations. 

So when we did get together in person over a coffee, we finally had the chance to fill in all the details of the intervening decade.

My friend has turned his life upside down, changing careers, relationships, countries and outlook. He’s starting all over again, and putting the past behind him. I was excited and just a little scared on his behalf.

“But what about…” I found myself saying over and over again. What about money, prospects, the future, the disruption and the uncertainty of it all? 

“All that stuff is in your head,” he said to me with a sweep of his hand and a broad smile. “It really is.”

After we parted, with a promise not to leave it so long next time, I found his words swirling around in my head. The same head all that stuff is in. Could it be true that all the things I think I know are actually just impressions, which I could change as easily as flipping a switch?

And I’m not just talking about the personal sphere now. It applies equally to the professional one. What could I change? What could you change? What would the results be? 

Here are some ideas I came up with, or have recently heard about, or have even put in place myself (perhaps unconsciously betraying my desire to turn everything on its head): 

  • Forget about SEO. In the age intelligent search and natural-language processing, this is actually a no-brainer. Gone are the days when you simply dropped in keywords and phrases and the algorithm worked its magic. Now more than ever, you have to write for the reader, not for the search engines. But what if you forgot about them completely? It’s like doing a high-wire act without the safety net. An acquaintance of mine recently took this approach, and though he dropped in the organic search-engine rankings, his content was shared far more, leading to lots of new leads – and a big chunk of business. 
  • Do something different. Speaking of safety nets, I decided earlier this year to turn off my pay-per-click advertising for a while. The quality of the leads had dropped, so I decided to try an alternative approach. Instead, I sent out an email blast, and repeated it at regular intervals. The resulting business was much more rewarding – in every sense – than the PPC leads I’d been getting. But it required a proactive effort on my behalf, and a leap of faith as the advertising went dark.
  • Connect with everybody. I’ve always been a bit choosy personally and professionally about who I connect with. But a few months back, at the suggestion of yet another friend, I resolved to drop the barriers and connect with anybody who wanted to connect with me. And I started proactively connecting randomly and frequently myself. The result has been astonishing – new friends, new business, new horizons. 
  • Stop hiding and get personal. A client of mine is a serial coffee-drinker. Nothing unusual in that, you might think, except he rarely does it alone. As soon as he connects with somebody local online – on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter – he suggests getting together for a latte, cappuccino or americano. He tells me he got the idea from online dating, where endless chat rarely leads anywhere. He says that in life as in love, the direct approach is best, which is why he suggests a meeting at the earliest possible opportunity. And he’s found just what he’s looking for (business, I mean) on many occasions. 
  • Feel the fear and do it anyway. “How on earth did you get so many amazing referrals?” I said to a client recently. They looked too good to be true, but each and every one was genuine. “I just asked for them,” he said, looking at me as if I were very slow on the uptake (or very cynical, or both). And that’s exactly what he had done, over and over again. I’ve done it too, of course, but not often enough to get through the pain barrier. He, on the other hand, does it so regularly that he feels no embarrassment whatsoever. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Indeed. 
  • Don’t make assumptions. We all do this, and we know we do – but that doesn’t stop us. I assumed my email campaign had failed, and then it miraculously paid dividends. I assumed that I’d never do business with a particular client, and then he popped up on the radar two years later. I assumed that I’d offended an unresponsive client, until I discovered that there was a personal crisis that swept everything else aside. I assumed that PPC would constantly bring in high-quality leads, until it stopped doing so.  If you can take a step back and realise you’re making assumptions with no real basis in fact, you’re on the road to recovery. Think of it as mindful marketing.

The list of things to turn on their head is potentially endless. Write in a way that makes you slightly uncomfortable. Give away valuable content without asking people to register first. Make that call (the one you’ve been putting off – because there’s always one). Stop trying to create the perfect sales email, and just send what you’ve got. Admit that you do some things badly, or not at all – and either live with the consequences or change. 

Stop endlessly polishing your blog post. Hit ‘publish’.

Then do something else that scares you.

What are your PowerPoint presentations saying about you?

Time to clear the decks and make a new start

If I hear one more person badmouth PowerPoint, I think I’ll scream. In fact, I already have, in anticipation of the next criticism coming my way, which is only a matter of time. 

A poor workman blames his tools, I want to say. But I never do, because I’m far too tactful and diplomatic.

But seriously, are people saying that PowerPoint serves no useful purpose at all? That they could stand up there and do a presentation like Dave, note-free and happily rapping for an hour without corpsing? 

I doubt it.

And quite apart from live presentations, what about slide decks that are just read and never used for presentations. Don’t they have a part to play in your marketing armoury? 

Of course they do. And used well (I’ve seen this done on rare and pretty spectacular occasions) PowerPoint can be incredibly effective. So what is it that gives the program such a bad reputation? 

Here are some of the mistakes I’ve seen in slide decks I’ve recently been working through:

  • Distracting transitions and animations. Slides that dissolve and text that flies in from one side of the screen move attention away from what you’re saying and on to how you’re saying it. Most transitions and animations are gimmicky and unnecessary. 
  • Too much information on one slide. A slide is no different to a paragraph or a section of copy. It should be long enough to convey the essentials, but not so long it loses the audience. If it’s too long, you’re probably trying to cover too much ground, so split it into two slides – or even more.
  • Not tailored to the audience. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to slide decks or any other copy. Maybe you need a sales deck, a marketing deck, a partner deck and lots of other variations on the theme. And you know what? If you’re presenting live, you don’t need a whole slew of decks. You can simply create custom shows within the same deck.
  • All or nothing. This is related to the last point, but is slightly different. When you’re doing a presentation, you often want to react in real time to the audience, based on their input. So you may not want to go sequentially through from slide 1 to 100 (and you really shouldn’t have 100 slides, by the way) but branch off at slide 10 depending on your audience. Branching is really easy, and saves your audience sitting through endless slides that aren’t relevant. 
  • Written for the writer, not the reader. This is a basic mistake that applies to all copywriting.  If you turn the tables and ask yourself whether you’d read what you’re writing if it were somebody else’s work, you might be in for a shock. Most slide decks are too long and too heavy on detail. So flip it round, and you’ll soon see where the problem is.  
  • Not tailored to the medium. Some decks are used for live presentations and others are emailed as an attachment or downloaded. So which is yours? They serve two purposes and need different levels of detail: a live presenter can always fill in the gaps and add more detail, but an emailed/downloaded deck should be free-standing. 
  • Cobbled together and hard to change. Somebody recently asked me to edit a slide deck, and when I looked at it, I realised to my horror that they didn’t know how to use the software properly. Now I’m no saint, but in a former life, I was a bit of a PowerPoint whizz. And you know what? Slide Layout is your friend, and Slide Masters will watch your back when you need it most. You’ll be able to edit more easily, move text around quickly, and have slides that are consistent and easy to read. As with most things, you need to take the time to save time. Which means reading the manual (ouch).

Remember, your slide decks are just as much part of your marketing collateral as your website, brochures, blog or tweets. Each and every slide sends out a message: too long (we don’t respect your time), too complicated (we don’t make things easy), too gimmicky (we focus on what’s not important), too detailed (we don’t cut to the chase).

So what message are yours sending out?

Five cognitive biases that could damage your marketing

If you think you have no blind spot, think again. And once again. 

[Image courtesy of Karola Riegler at Flickr Creative Commons]

A friend of mine has decided to emigrate from the UK to France. And guess what? The weather is better there, and so are the supermarkets. As are the health system, the schools, housing, quality of life, roads, scenery.

You mention it, it’s better. Nothing and nobody will make him deviate from his course. He’s made up his mind, and everything now points in the same direction. Which in this case is the other side of the English Channel.

My friend is suffering from cognitive bias, which is something we all experience now and then. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve made up my mind and then made the facts fit my decision.

If you think about it, the chances of everything aligning with your choice are very slim indeed. Most things have a pretty equal distribution of positives and negatives, so alarm bells should be ringing if your choice is showing nothing but green lights.

In past lives, I’ve been part of unstoppable decisions (not mine, of course, but corporate ones – or am I in denial?) that with hindsight were a big mistake. But at the time, we all drank the Kool-Aid and went for it. 

The cognitive bias trap set me thinking about others that we all fall into from time to time. They can cause you to tweet inappropriately, launch campaigns that are doomed to fail, double down on losing bets and plough on with a piece of copy that’s just plain wrong. 

So what are some of the other cognitive biases that could stymie our marketing efforts? 

Information bias

This is one of my big failings, but admission is halfway to a cure, I suppose (at least that’s what I tell myself). I’ll often find myself thinking that if I read just another whitepaper, or scan another website, or download another Gartner report, I’ll do a better job.

But more information often simply slows you down, or confuses you, or makes you seek yet more inputs. And studies have actually shown that often, people make better decisions with less information. So stop the search, feel the pain and do it anyway. 

Anchoring bias

If you quote based on your time, how much do you charge? If you’re launching a product, how do you price it? Chances are that in both cases you have a scale that guides your decision.

Maybe it’s an industry standard, or what they market will tolerate, or worked back from your sales forecasts, or driven by your competitors. And that’s all very well, but be careful that you don’t get led astray by latching on to a figure when you don’t need to.


We’ve all done it, whether we admit it or not. They’re that type of client, we think to ourselves as soon as they open their mouth or send an email. This is that type of blog post, we say as we churn out more of the same. I’ve seen this situation a million times before, we think confidently.

Now it’s difficult to see each conversation, person or situation with a fresh pair of eyes, but that doesn’t mean we should stop looking. Stereotypical thinking means unoriginal work, so stay alert and spot the difference. Then make a difference. 


This works hand in hand with innovation bias and the bandwagon effect. What you’ve just seen, or just read, is the next Big Thing. Never mind the plan, or what you decided yesterday. This is new, and fresh, and everybody’s doing it.

But just think about it. If that’s the case, why bother planning at all? Why not just sit back and see what each day brings? Here’s why: because then you’re always in tactical mode, changing direction at the drop of a hat. You never take the long view, and never think strategically.


So what about my friend who’s moving to pastures new? Well I’m keeping a diplomatic silence. If it doesn’t work out, it’s no big deal.

And if it does work out, I’ll have free holidays. Vive la France!