Want to achieve more by doing less? Here's how.

Cutting out the distractions and getting the job done

If you’ve ever felt frazzled by the pace of modern life, it may well be the fault of technology. What was supposed to set us free – work anywhere, any time from any device – seems to have slowly pulled us into a 24×7 routine that never lets up. 

So we check emails in bed, at the gym and over dinner. We reply to IMs and scan Instagram feeds in meetings, in the car and at the hairdresser.

No wonder we feel frazzled. So maybe it’s time to take a leaf out of Cal Newport’s book. 

Newport is astonishingly prolific: within 10 years of graduating, he published four books, got a PhD, regularly peer-reviewed white papers, and became a professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

And in between, he taught classes – his real job.

He’s achieved all of this through deep focus and efficient use of his time. And that means not being constantly distracted by the demands of new technology.

So he’s never had a Facebook or Twitter account, or any other social media presence outside of a blog. He schedules every minute of the day, and has an email curfew in place, so he’s not disturbed in the evening or early morning. He also practices ‘productive meditation’, where he ponders problems on his walk to and from work.

Ditching the distractions

I’ve been reading all about Newport’s radical approach in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

He claims that focus is the new IQ in the knowledge economy. As he puts it: 

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Deep work means cutting out the distractions, because they have a hidden downside. 

It might seem pretty harmless to glance at your email every 10 minutes, but it’s the attention residue after switching tasks that causes problems. And if you can’t immediately react to what you’ve read, it’s worse, as it lingers unresolved in your mind, interfering with your primary task. 

There’s also a hidden cost associated with all this addictive checking: Newport mentions a company that was calculated to be spending over a million dollars on employees processing emails every year. 

He also talks of “busyness as a proxy for productivity”, which is very common in today’s knowledge economy. Since there aren’t any clear indicators for what productivity looks like, people simply do “lots of stuff in a visible manner”.

And let’s be honest: we’ve all been there. You haven’t stopped all day, and yet when you look back at what you’ve actually accomplished, it’s difficult to quantify it. You were just busy.

But busyness doesn’t equal business.

Depth not breadth

So much for the problem – what’s Newport’s solution?

Having made his case for homo sapiens deepensis in Part 1 of the book, he turns to the rules (and yes, there are rules) in Part 2:

  1. Work deeply
  2. Embrace boredom
  3. Quit social media
  4. Drain the shallows

He breaks down each of these into manageable steps and gives real-world advice based on his personal experience. He says it’s important to decide where you’ll work and for how long, how you’ll work once you start and how you’ll support your work (with food, coffee and exercise).

And one size doesn’t fit all. There are, he says, many different approaches for working deeply, and you should choose the one that’s best suited to you:

  • Monastic – you cut yourself off totally and devote yourself to the task.
  • Bimodal – you divide your time between your deep focus/work and other, shallower activities.
  • Journalistic – you fit deep work into your schedule wherever you can (like a journalist, you write your story up anywhere).

Although I’d like to be monastic, I know deep down I’m more bimodal. What about you? 

Deeper and deeper

Newport’s case is pretty convincing and his approach is practical and no‑nonsense.

Even if the book doesn’t inspire you to radically change how you work, you’ll definitely pick up some tips on how to get more out of your day.

My favourite is one is entitled Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work. It’ll help you avoid the endless email ping-pongs that cause so much of our daily distraction. 

Deep Work is a fascinating read, and at 260 pages doesn’t require that much deep reading. I highly recommend it. In the meantime, if you’re too busy with all those emails and IMs, check out instead Newport’s TEDx talk called Quit social media

Because if you do that, you might just have time to read the book. And a lot more time besides.

Find answers faster, make decisions more easily and focus on what matters

What we can learn from three-year-olds and a roll of the dice

[Image courtesy of Katie Sayer at Flickr Creative Commons]

A web designer I know told me recently about a client he’d had to part ways with. This client was, it appears, unable to do two things: give clear, precise feedback, and make a decision.

Which made working together virtually impossible, my friend said.

The project ran on endlessly, and didn’t seem to be getting any closer to conclusion. So in the end, he and his client decided to call it a day – amicably, but with a certain measure of frustration. And my friend was left scratching his head and wondering why.

So was I, but since I’ve been in that situation myself and scratched without resolution, I decided not to offer any suggestions or advice.

Sometimes, things just go awry and you have to move on. 

Ask and you shall receive

And then a strange thing happened. I discovered two tools that might help my friend – or me – in just such a situation in the future. 

The first is The Five Whys.

If you’re a Six Sigma Black Belt, you’ll know all about this technique, as it’s part of the Analyse phase in the Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control (DMAIC) cycle that helps in the search for optimisation and improvement.

And if you’re not a black belt, you’ll have experienced this anyway if you’ve ever heard a three-year-old child try to get to the bottom of things.

Why do I have to eat carrots? (Because they’re good for you.) Why are they good for me? (Because they’ve got lots of vitamins.) Why do I need vitamins? (Because they help you stay healthy.) Why do I need to be healthy? (OK, leave the carrots.)

The Five Whys was invented back in the 1930s by by Toyota Founder Kiichiro Toyoda’s father Sakichi, and popularised in the 1970s. And it’s really just a simple way of finding the root cause of a problem – in their case, problems with production of cars.

The fact of the matter

You can use this approach for most problems – but there is one proviso. It must be a problem where you have the facts readily to hand. If you find yourself making suppositions, then you’re simply going to complicate the problem.

This could have helped my friend, but he would have had to really pin down his client on the answers: Why is the website not right? (I don’t like it.) Why don’t you like it? (It’s too interactive/there’s too much happening.) Why is that a problem? (I think the audience may find it confusing.) Why? (Because they’re slightly older and prefer a straightforward approach.)

As you can see, in this (imagined) example it didn’t even take five questions. Four was enough to get to the root cause, and decide on a plan of action: make the website simpler and easier to navigate.

It’s important to reiterate that this example is fact-based. Even the assumptions the client makes come from a first-hand knowledge of his audience, customers and prospects. 

If, on the other hand, we were asking ‘Why are people not downloading our free e-book?’ it might be a bit tricker. Or ‘Why are people not signing up for our newsletter?’ In both cases, we either need to make a guess or find out more information.

Since we can’t get inside the head of the potential reader (we don’t even know who they are) we need to deploy analytics to track behaviour, vary the copy and call to action, and carry out split testing. Only then will we get to the root cause. 

So the Five Whys are great for simple, fact-based problems – and they’re often the ones that take up a lot of time.

With those out of the way, we can address the more complex ones. 

The die is cast

Which brings me to my second tool. Just like we have simple and complex problems, we have simple and complex decisions.

The simple ones are binary, where there’s no right or wrong answer (yet). Website base colour: red or green? Price: £9.99 or £9.49? Offer: 30 or 15 days’ free access?

It even applies to personal decisions. Stay in or go out? Holiday in Rome or Paris? The blue or the grey sweater?

We’re all faced with these seemingly random decisions every day, and they take up a disproportionate amount of time.

And then I heard of an intriguing idea: decide it on the roll of a dice. 

Somebody I know tried this for a week, and it transformed her life. Suddenly, trivial but time-consuming decisions became a breeze. She carried her dice with her everywhere, and rolled it when she needed to.

And at the end of the week, when she put the dice back in her bottom drawer, she carried on simply making snap decisions without sweating the small stuff.  

So there you are: Five Whys and a dice. Two solutions that could help us all cut through the confusion, and focus on the really important stuff.

It may be too late for my friend and his client, but it’s not too late for you. Or me. 

Let’s get rolling. And don’t ask me why.

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. Take 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. 

Five ways to improve your writing

Breaking the rules, talking to yourself and killing your darlings

“How do you write so clearly?” somebody asked me recently.

Clearly, me? Do I?

Well, yes, I suppose I do, but it’s not because I’ve got some secret that nobody else has access to. I didn’t climb a mountain and meet a copywriting sadhu.

I just follow some simple rules. Or, in some cases, break them.

1. Read it out loud

If there’s one tip you should remember of the five,  this is it.

Often, when we write, the words remain lifeless on the page – and we wonder why.

Wonder no more.

Scriptwriters know all about this. Words, phrases, entire passages that they thought were flowing, sonorous and effective, suddenly fall apart when spoken out loud by actors.

What worked on the page simply doesn’t work when spoken.

Now it’s not that people all read out loud when they read.  Or even silently, moving their lips – what linguists call ‘subvocalisation’.

But a lot of people hear voices in their head (nice ones, I mean).

So read it out loud. I promise you, you’ll be surprised. As soon as you start doing it, you’ll see what doesn’t make sense.

As a Telegraph journalist might have done when he wrote the following phrase a couple of months ago:

Mr Clegg will leave his own conference early to deputise for Mr Cameron, whose wife Samantha is due to give birth next month, at a United Nations meeting in New York.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I read that, I immediately had visions of of Sam Cam with her feet in stirrups in front of the UN General Assembly.

See what I mean? Read it aloud, and you’ll avoid problems of delivery.

2. Break it up

Most people skim, and pick up the sense of the copy. So make it easy for them.

Break up your text with headings, bullets, bold and underline. Summarise the main points in boxes. Repeat your message. Repeat your call to action.





…so that copy can ‘breathe’ and not overwhelm the reader.

Break up ideas into paragraphs. Break up the paragraphs into sentences, and vary the length of the sentences. Some short. Some much longer, just for variety, and so that it all flows better.

Writing has a rhythm. So learn to dance with it.

3. Break the rules

How many times have you heard that a sentence can’t finish with a preposition?

You know what? Yes, it can.

Would you say products in which we specialise or products we specialise in?

Now you know that the first version is probably more correct. And you’re right – it is.

But it sounds stilted, formal and pedantic. Are you any of those things? Do you think your target market would respond to somebody who was ?

Of course not.

So be yourself, and write how you talk. And if that means breaking ‘rules’ (never begin a sentence with and, never use contractions, don’t use informal words or slang, don’t split an infinitive) then go ahead.

Break. And watch the magic.

4. Kill your darlings

This is a phrase from classic writing guide The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

Your darlings are those phrases you’ve laboured over lovingly. You’ve crafted them, tweaked them, reworked them, polished them. You’ve watched them grow and develop, and are justifiably proud of them.

You’ve obeyed rule number 1 (read them aloud) and you’re still pleased with them.

Just a little too pleased, in fact. Every time you read them, you smile to yourself. And that’s an early warning sign.

It could be a clever pun. Or a particularly long, obscure or high-flown word. Maybe it’s humorous alliteration or words that mirror each other. Perhaps it’s a clever-clever tagline, or a Latin-inspired name that hides its meaning to all but the most over-educated.

Kill it. Before it kills your business.

Simple language works best. Because it’s simple, direct, and doesn’t get in the way – like the best newsreaders, whose sober dress sense doesn’t detract from what they’re saying.

5. Plan, write. In that order.

Copy is not like a letter. You don’t sit down at a blank sheet of paper and pour your heart out as you would to your granny or your dear old Aunt Joan who’s sent you a fiver for your birthday.

Copy should be structured, focused and concise. It should have a clear aim, and tell a simple story.

And throwing words on the page won’t achieve that.

So plan first. You can use MindMaps or bullet points, or just scribbles on a piece of scrap paper.

If you don’t know how to begin, then start at the end. Why are you writing this? You want somebody to buy? To make an appointment? To call? To set up a demo?

Fine. That’s the end. Now work backwards. What’s the thing that will clinch that decision? Good. That’s your killer argument.

Now work back to the detail – not too much, but enough to build to the killer argument.

Now back a step to the intro paragraph. Now back a step to the headline.

And you’re done.

Plan it forward. Plan it backwards. But whatever you do, plan it.

Then write.  It’s the only way it works.

Find out more:

  • Words of wisdom. Pleased with what you’ve written? Too pleased? Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style will help you kill those darlings.

Good lessons from bad service

Living in the slow lane on the information superhighway

My broadband was restored last week, after being down for three weeks.

Yes, that’s right. Three whole weeks.

But there’s nothing more tedious than a rant about bad customer service, is there? So I’ll spare you the ins and outs of the sorry saga.

Instead, I’ll turn it on its head, and tell you what it taught me about service – and about myself.

Service (without a smile)

Good service – whatever it is you do, whatever you sell – really isn’t all that difficult.

But it’s not one big thing – instead, it’s all the little things. And getting those right means having a plan, setting goals and making sure you meet them.

So if I were sharing a skinny latte with the Big Boss of my ISP, what would I tell him (or her)?

  • Train your staff. Is there anything more trust-busting than being told by a second support person that the first person you spoke to was ‘new, and may have got it wrong’? Learning on the job is part of the job; learning at the customer’s expense is dangerous and damaging. So train them first, then release them into the wild.
  • Tell the truth (even when you’d really rather not). The truth is your secret weapon – even when it’s bad. Hiding an embarrassing truth is worse than telling it with openness and honesty. An open-kimono approach works every time (metaphorically, you understand).
  • Get your story straight (and stick to it). Do BT engineers work on Saturday and Sunday? Search me. I was told yes, then no, then maybe. Can support people talk to BT? Yes, then no. Would I get SMS updates? Yes, maybe. But not always. Not really. A simple story has a unique and winning quality – its simplicity.
  • Organise your company around the customer. Yes, OK, they work shifts, and they’re sometimes off sick. And what if they get run over by a bus? Or they leave? All these things could happen, but it doesn’t mean teams can’t be organised into cells of 2-3 people who are instantly familiar with specific problems. It  means that customers don’t have to endlessly explain their problems to a new person.
  • Use technology. Especially if you’re a technology company. If I can see that my friend Sally is calling on my landline, why can’t they? Better still, why can’t my incoming number fire up their database and bring up my record? And why is the database so slow (I’m just waiting for the record to come up, sir)?
  • Don’t pass the buck (even internally). No, it’s not support, it’s accounts. It’s our faults department. It’s BT Wholesale. It’s BT Openreach. It’s the exchange people. It’s the call centre, you see. Your company is a blob, Mr ISP – one big blob that I see as a brand. So make sure that Blob Inc. does its stuff seamlessly.
  • Be pleasant, open and helpful – even when the shells are coming in and you want to hunker down in the bunker. Smile even though you’re on the phone. And here’s a thought: listen. Pick up on the signals and ‘mirror’ the language and tone of the speaker (yes, it’s an NLP thing – and it works).
  • Communicate. OK, you’re doing stuff, and the problem’s in hand. But does the customer know? If not, why not? Send a quick email, update the support ticket, let them know about that stuff. Manage their expectations, and they’ll never be disappointed.
  • Don’t forget the value of existing customers. New customers are expensive and difficult to find. So why alienate existing customers needlessly? Treat them well and they’ll stay forever.
  • Don’t wait until people shout – because when they’re shouting, they tend not to listen. And other people hear. Shouting is what I did in the end, when I posted a damning message in my ISP’s discussion forum (it worked).

Warts and all

So what did I learn about myself? Well quite a lot, actually. Living in the slow lane of the information superhighway wasn’t all bad.

My three weeks of subsonic internet access taught me:

  • You can’t do two things at once – though super-fast broadband makes you think you can. Multi-tasking is multi-stressing, and being forced to do one thing at a time made me calmer, more focused and more organised.
  • Having a backup plan, like a nuclear deterrent, gives you a warm fuzzy feeling. You know it’s there if you need it. In my case, my nuke was my Nokia, which give me reliable, if slow-ish, access to the internet, used as a modem for my PC.
  • Don’t get angry at bad service. If you do, you lose twice over. And no, I’m not going to say get even instead. Just accept it for what it is, and if you’ve got a problem, focus on the resolution, not the obstacles along the way.
  • Think laterally. When I was dealing with the support team, I was working in a walled garden. Worse, a soundproofed (think Truman Show) walled garden where nobody could hear my screams. When I changed tactics and shouted from the rooftops in a public forum, help materialised as if by magic, and the problem was quickly resolved. Think laterally and you beat the system.
  • Take a break – from the online world, that is. Offline really isn’t that bad. You learn to slow down, read more carefully, not flit from one thing to another. You concentrate better, feel more centred and don’t feel as frazzled at the end of the day. Since my broadband came back, my browsing habits have changed. I spend less time online, and get more out of my day.

So bad service wasn’t all bad. Even forcing myself to see the positive in a very negative situation (which goes against the grain in a serial moaner, I can tell you) changed how I see things.

I even discovered that with a Starbucks card, you get free wifi. So now I’ve got another reason to go for a grande skinny decaf extra-hot wet latte.

As if I needed one.

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