Interview: Life Lessons From a Serial Experimentalist

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 4: Reviewing, subscribe and buy here

Graham Allcott is best-known for his book, How to Be a Productivity Ninja, but he also runs the UK- based productivity consultancy Think Productive, a hugely popular enterprise running workshops and consulting with individuals and enterprises across the UK.

I like to think that Graham and I share a passion for experimenting, as evidenced by Graham’s “2013 Extreme Productivity Experiments”, which included a month without Internet and a month without a formal productivity mechanism. I have much admiration and respect for his willingness to make a guinea pig of himself!

Welcome to Alpha Efficiency Magazine, Graham! For those who don’t know you, why don’t you introduce yourself?

My name’s Graham Allcott. I’m best known for being the author of “How to be a Productivity Ninja” but I’m also the founder of Think Productive and a social entrepreneur. I’m a faithful follower of UK soccer team Aston Villa FC, which might not mean much to your readers outside the UK, but it means I’m very familiar with pain and disappointment!. I’m also a social entrepreneur and have been involved with starting or running several charities and social ventures and I’m a board member for Centrepoint, which is the UK’s largest youth homelessness charity.

I got excited by productivity as a topic because I’d spent the first decade or so of my career putting all my energy into changing the world, regularly finding that I was either burning myself out or signing myself up for things I couldn’t deliver on my own. That’s fine when you’re CEO or manager of a charity, as I was for a while, as you have people that can help pick up the slack, but then I made the leap to being alone freelance consultant working with charities and had a sudden realization that I needed to be more self-reliant, get better at dealing with operational detail and acquire more ‘completer-finisher’ skills, which is just not natural to me at all. After that, it became a bit of an obsession because I could see how much it helped me to focus on those skills and I was good at teaching it because I could relate so well to the struggle!

You made a bit of a lab rat of yourself in 2013 by conducting a number of productivity experiments; what inspired you to do this and what did you learn from it?

Writing “How to be a Productivity Ninja” in 2012 was a really intense process. It was my “here’s how I do productivity” book. But then I wanted to see if there were other elements of productivity, beyond what I usually think about what we talk about in our Think Productive workshops. So I decided for 2013 I would do a different experiment each month. Each experiment started with a hypothesis and a set of rules I’d live by. The idea was to live and play in extreme scenarios to exaggerate the findings and then apply those findings and lessons to more everyday situations. Taking things to extremes and exaggerating the normal constraint we live with can make for wonderful productivity lessons.

I did crazy stuff like only checking email on Fridays for a month (a cheeky reverse of the ‘No Email Fridays’ ethic), I worked 5 am to 9 am to ‘flip the 9–5’, ate an optimum productivity diet and then fasted for Ramadan with my friends over at Productive Muslim. I made decisions by dice and lived for a month with none of my usual productivity systems… it was a crazy year! I guess what I learned is that there’s always more to learn. Productivity is not a static set of rules, to me anyway. It’s a constantly changing and evolving thing.

What was your favorite productivity experiment, and why?

It’s really hard to pick one, but I think my month of making decisions by the throw of a dice was probably my most memorable. I called it ‘The Dice Man’ in homage to Luke Rhinehart’s book of the same name and I woke up one day to find that Luke had reached out and left me a comment on my blog post, which was really exciting. The idea was that rather than spend any time procrastinating or over-thinking a decision, I would think of either 2, 3 or 6 options and then roll the dice. I chose my food by dice when eating out, I scheduled my days with dice and even decided what to do about an international licensing contract by dice. It’s really quite liberating waking up in the morning knowing that any difficult decisions won’t be down to you to solve and that you can’t be to blame! The serious lesson, moving back from the extreme scenario to normal life, is that ego and personal stress and guilt play havoc with our judgment and with our productivity. It’s also interesting when you’re forced to think of other options beyond the comfort and routine of what you’d normally choose – most people think of one or two options to do most things, but six?! It forces your thinking to some interesting places. There’s lots more to explore around all that, and hey, I might even give the dice another go at some point too!

It’s important to ask yourself lots of good questions – managing yourself is no different to managing anyone else.

This issue we’re talking about the importance of having the principle of reviewing embedded into your life; What’s your interpretation of “reviewing” and its importance?

Well, in the productivity world, “Review” is often shorthand for the GTD Weekly Review from David Allen’s book. That book was hugely influential for me, but my interpretation of review would be slightly wider than just a weekly review. I think of review more as a mindset, really. I have both daily and weekly checklists, but as well as getting things up to date and reviewing lists, these are more about my “boss self” and my “worker self” getting together to discuss my progress. That probably sounds a little schizophrenic, but I guess what it really means is that it’s important to ask yourself lots of good questions – managing yourself is no different to managing anyone else.

What sort of reviewing do you do and why?

I have daily and weekly checklists. The weekly one takes me around two hours, but for the last two or three years, I’ve been in a pattern of doing it in full once a fortnight and then doing a much lighter one for about 30 mins on the weeks in between. I don’t say that in the book because it doesn’t work for everyone, but since no two weeks are the same for me – and I tend to do the more detailed ones on the train up to Aston Villa matches every two weeks on a Saturday morning – that kind of pattern seems to work for me. The last section of the review is a list of good questions I ask myself, including what am I going to be resisting next week and why? What three things on my list can I delete because they don’t matter? Who do I need to give a ‘heads up’ to? and What’s inspiring me that I should blog about?

My daily checklist is simply “calendar, big rocks, energy level, dependencies”. From there I write a daily to-do list. It takes less than 5 minutes but it’s crucial for me to remind myself that I have some control of where the day might go. Also, within Think Productive, we practice a ‘daily huddle’, which is a 15-minute all-team meeting where we discuss the day, targets and things we’re stuck on. We do a 15-minute meditation immediately before the huddle, so it’s half an hour of clarity guaranteed every day!

The productivity concept of a daily or weekly “task review” is highly controversial – what’s your position?

It’s controversial for a couple of reasons as I see it: First, it’s really hard to maintain. Second, it’s difficult for lots of people to recognize that reviewing and intense thinking time are actually the main part of their work – or more likely, it’s difficult for their bosses to recognize the importance. My position is that you either need to do a regular daily or weekly review; probably both.

I think it’s much less controversial for people who are doing it regularly. The habit gets easier, even if the thinking is always tough.

We ask all our guests to share their home screen and talk about how it helps them work and the rationale behind it; talk us through yours.

This is a tough choice for me – I use a Windows laptop, iPad and iPhone, so foot in both camps! I don’t really think of the laptop home screen as being that important (I just have a few choice bits like Chrome, Outlook and Scrivener pinned to the taskbar), so I’ve shared the iPad screen here.

I much prefer Outlook for actual email processing but use to scan stuff when I’m on the move. I have 2 task managers: Pocket Informant is my main app (and the best for reviewing) but it syncs nicely with Toodledo, which allows me to input new stuff on my phone and from the web too.

I use Hootsuite for all social media. I use Dropbox for a lot of personal files and we use SugarSync for Think Productive’s shared files – mainly because sharing was a bit more flexible when we set it all up, but I have to say I prefer the simplicity of Dropbox in general. Xero is fantastic if you need an online book-keeping tool and it to makes accounting ridiculously easy (at Think Productive we tried them all before finding Xero, believe me!). Checking balances, tracking invoices and doing bank reconciliation from my phone on the Xero app is a beautiful thing. I also keep a whole bunch of task managers on my iPad, so that when I’m running a workshop, people can see a demo of different styles of the app. That’s why I have a folder of ‘List Managers’ – I’m certainly not using them all myself! Centering is the simplest app in the world but is just a really simple mindfulness and embodiment app.

Oh, and if you’re curious, the wallpaper is a retro picture of Villa Park (the home of Aston Villa FC).

You and your company do a lot of work with people and companies on their productivity; Can you talk about some of the common problems you come across and how to address them?

Well, email is a big problem. Meetings. Stress. Work/life balance. I guess the good news for Think Productive and the sad news for the world is that nothing much has really changed in the last five years since we started. The difference between us and most of the rest is that we’ve built a team and ‘learning community’ of absolute productivity geeks to address these problems, whereas most trainers do “time management” on a Monday, “negotiation” on a Wednesday and “Customer Service” on a Friday and don’t really have the same expertise or enthusiasm. We also do a lot of work with people at their desks as part of the workshops. So it’s very practical, hands-on stuff. There’s no point in running a workshop on ‘Getting Your Inbox to Zero’ if, at the end of it, all you’ve done is talk. We leave people with their inboxes at zero and a big smile on their face.

What’s the best advice you can give to any of our readers who are trying to redesign their productivity methodology?

Firstly, define the ‘why’ and the ‘what’, so you know what you’re aiming for. Then take small steps towards it. It can be quite stressful trying to change too much too soon, so as long as you know where you’re headed, cut yourself some slack and take it slowly. Like so many things in productivity and in life, at the root of this advice is “life’s too short to beat yourself up with the things you haven’t mastered yet.”

You recently re-released your popular eBook – How to Be a Productivity Ninja in paperback. Tell us a little about the book and your journey of getting it into physical print.

Well, it was in print as a self-published book when I launched it in July 2012, but we couldn’t get it into shops for love nor money despite it selling pretty well on Amazon. Then I had the opportunity to sell the rights to a UK publisher called Icon, who basically re-packaged and re-released it in January 2014. With their backing, it’s gone really well so far and as we speak it’s went to number one in the business book chart at WHSmiths here in the UK.

It’s great seeing it on the shelves and seeing it reach a much wider audience. My experience was that as a first-time author, the big publishers saw me as too much of a risk. They were offering me terrible contracts, but then once they could see that I’d managed to get a book out there on my own they could make me an offer based on a real thing not just an idea. So in many ways self-publishing takes the risk factor out of it for the publishers and you’ll likely end up with a better deal doing it that way around. I don’t favor self-publishing over publishing or the other way around, really – it’s more important to do what’s right for your book. Self-publishing means you’re writing on your own terms, which is probably more comfortable for a first-time author. I needed that control when I started out and especially with that book, but I think I’m more relaxed about the next books now that I’ve been through the process (and the other books will be less central to the Think Productive brand, so that makes it easier too).

I also found the bigger publishers so slow and unproductive – ironically the whole publishing industry always tells me they need what I do! I’m really happy with my decision to go with a smaller publisher, where they don’t have the bureaucracy stopping them taking risks or making things happen. I have a few more books in me, some of which my publishers will take up and others which I’ll probably self-publish.

I want to ensure that I do more than spend the next 20 years writing about the productivity of running a productivity company.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline you can share with us?

We’re exploring some licensing opportunities to bring Think Productive’s workshops to countries around the world: the first one in Canada has been running for a year now and it’s developing really well.

I’ve got two other books in the immediate pipeline: one will be a pocket guide to productivity and the other one’s a secret for now; what I can say is that it will be taking productivity ideas to a distinctly non-business audience.

My personal three-year plan is to focus on writing and speaking about productivity whilst my amazing team focuses on every day running of Think Productive. Basically, after five years I’ve found a way to monetize the bit of Think Productive business development that I’m good at!

But more broadly, I want to ensure that I do more than spend the next 20 years writing about the productivity of running a productivity company, to avoid it all getting a bit circular and starting to eat itself. My long-term plan is to spend more of my time developing new social enterprises using entrepreneurial solutions to tackle social problems, which feels like a passion I’ve neglected a bit in the last couple of years and will enable me to give something back whilst hopefully expanding my productivity expertise using in an entirely different backdrop.

Thanks for talking to Alpha Efficiency Magazine!