What I learnt from becoming a productivity addict

Yes mum, I finally understand why tomatoes are so good for me

When I ran a “proper business” (with staff and an office and everything), I might have been the boss in title, but I certainly wasn’t acting like a CEO.

Instead of having a high-level strategic overview of the business, I’d live in my inbox, let everyone else’s priorities override mine, and say “yes” to every meeting. When I should have been planning to bring in new business, I’d be ordering a new toner catridge. Instead of taking a client out to dinner, I’d stay in the office until 9pm answering emails.

So when I quit and suddenly had more freedom over my time, I was determined to make it count. Maybe too determined: I’ve adopted every productivity technique in the book, and driven Mish mad in the process.

Here’s everything I now do to stay productive, and what I’ve learnt as a result…

What I do

Do my most important task before checking my email

I’m writing a book at the moment, and I know that to have any chance of getting it done in time I need to write at least 1,000 words per day. I make sure I get this done first thing so I feel better for having it done, and there isn’t a chance for other people’s priorities to get in the way.

Get scarily militant about Inbox Zero

Email was the bane of my life when I ran my business, so now I’ve started afresh I’ve become psychopathic about minimising the amount of time it takes up. I’ve:

  • Unscubscribed from EVERY mailing list I somehow ended up on. I now sign up for new lists using the Gmail “plus sign” trick, and filter anything sent to that address to skip the inbox, get marked as read, and be given a “mailing list” label so I can schedule a specific time to read them.
  • Done the same with every type of social media alert – they get filtered to an “alerts” label, and marked as read so I don’t get tempted to click when I see the number
  • Implemented the empty Gmail hack by Leo Babauta that makes it impossible to leave anything in my inbox. If I don’t process it straight away, it vanishes – so I have to use the Getting Things Done system of replying immediately or scheduling a time to respond to more complicated messages.

Spend 15 minutes each evening planning out the following day

Now I’ve got so much control over my time, I like to work out in advance how I want each day to pan out. So every evening, I update my to-do list in Workflowy, and tag each task so I just have to search “#tue” to see all the tasks I have to do on Tuesday.

Track what I’ve achieved

I use iDoneThis to record what I’ve done every day. I never look back at previous days, but I find the act of writing it down each evening useful. It’s a bit like the anti to-do list concept that Joel Gascoigne talks about.

I’ve also experimented with using AskMeEvery to email me every day asking a simple yes/no for specific activities like “Did I exercise today?” – this is taking advantage of Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret.

Embrace the Pomodoro Technique

This one is huge. Pre-pomodoro (as I think of my life until a month ago), I’d do at least 12 hours of low-intensity screen time each day and con myself that I was crazy-busy. Now, with the Pomodoro Technique, I spend 25 minutes on a set task with absolutely no distractions – and the amount I can get done in an hour is terrifying.

By scheduling six pomodoros of activity the previous day (which can include one pomodoro for responding to emails), I know that even if I only get three hours of work done, I’ll still do enough to move all my important projects forward.


I’ve never been as ADD as some, but in the past I’d always have Gmail and TweetDeck tabs pinned in Chrome. No more: when I’m doing something, I’m doing it and nothing else.

Weirdly, the habit of monotasking has made me even more negatively affected by interruptions than I used to be. Mish can happily work through all manner of popups and distractions, so maybe I should be working on focusing despite distractions rather than trying to eliminate them completely.

(As an aside, the other day Mish was completely oblivious when the loudest, fattest  American man on the planet started talking about his therapy sessions in a cafe. I was annoyed – and hooked – and I had to suspend my Pomodoro until he started talking about life insurance.)

Batch my meetings into a single afternoon

This never goes as well as it should, but I aim to compress all meetings/calls into one or two afternoons a week. I find that a half-hour Skype call can easily take 90 minutes out of a day (20 mins preparing, 10 mins being ready but not worth starting anything else, 10 minutes waiting because they’re late, 30 mins call, 20 mins writing up notes and getting back into work afterwards), so I try to only have one or two days a week with any appointments at all.

I’ll also only schedule meetings for the afternoon, because I’m most naturally productive in the mornings. Being in a timezone seven hours ahead of our clients takes care of that automatically, but really being unavailable before midday should never be a big deal.

What I’ve learnt

  • This stuff really works. Mish sometimes accuses me of spending more time looking for new productivity techniques than I ever save by implementing them, but (this is the one time that) she’s (ever been) wrong. Adopting just one of these ideas will save you time, but the results have compounded as I’ve stacked different techniques.
  • It’s addictive, and not always in a good way. I’ve become too rigid, and freak out if unexpected things crop up and derail my plans. I tend more than ever towards trying to optimise every single minute instead of having some flexibility and unplanned time.
  • Expectations increase in line with results. In the old days I’d be happy to get anything useful done, but I still feel I should be doing more even though I’m doing 20 times as much in a day.
  • Once you control your time, a whole new set of questions opens up. How much time should be spend creating vs consuming vs doing things not at all related to work?
  • With great productivity power comes great responsibility: it becomes crucial to have strong goals, because you can’t have any excuses for not hitting them.
  • Some tasks are easier to whip into line than others. For example, what about social networking? I now ignore it more than ever because it doesn’t “feel productive”: 30 minutes on Twitter might lead to some great conversations, but is more often a total waste. That’s bad, because building connections and disseminating content is every bit as important as creating it.

My conclusion? Productivity isn’t the answer, but it strips away a lot of the excuses and distractions that stand between you and the answer.

Also, if you find yourself saying to your wife “I’m just on a Pomodoro – I’ll be with you in 11 minutes”, it might be time to relax a little…

Do you wish you could achieve more each day? What one tip or habit has made the biggest difference to your productivity? Please convince me I’m not a complete psychopath by letting us know in the comments!