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Book review: How To Be A Productivity Ninja

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“Time management is dead,” writes Graham Allcott in his book, How To Be A Productivity Ninja. The old time management concepts don’t work anymore, he says, because we don’t have the same working environment.

The number of information sources has gone up, and we’re expected to juggle more and manage more complex jobs while our jobs are less defined. “All of this means you have to come to terms with one important thing: you will never get everything finished.”

How To Be A Productivity Ninja is apparently the answer to your time management problems. It is a wide-ranging book looking at loads of different ways to squeeze more out of the day without having to work longer hours. One of the techniques he majors on is attention management.

Managing your attention

Allcott talks about using attention management instead of time management. In other words, focusing your attention on the right things, because your attention span is far more limited than the time available in a day.

You can’t focus at a high level all day as your attention wanders. My own personal productivity killer at the moment is the mumsnet ‘Am I being Unreasonable?’ forum.

Attention management, says Allcott, is the key to productivity. So what do you do in periods of low attention when you don’t have the mental focus to tackle the important stuff?

He suggests:

  • Filing
  • Ordering stationery and other stuff online
  • Printing stuff
  • Deleting emails
  • Throwing away paperwork that’s no longer required
  • Attending meetings that you can’t get out of but know you can add no value to
  • Making coffee!

Some productivity tips

One of the things I enjoyed about this book was the tips. It seems as if every page has something useful on it. Here are a couple of my favorites.

Trust your systems. You need to have confidence that your processes will work and not let you down.

Be organized so that when you are in a good frame of mind and in the flow, you aren’t slowed down by not finding the critical information you need to keep going.

Lower your expectations. You can’t get it all done so don’t try.  Trust that you are making the right decisions about what to work on.

However, I didn’t agree with all his advice. “One of the worst things you can do is always make yourself available,” Allcott writes. This lets distractions and interruptions in, so he advises you stay out of the way until you have something to share or some kind of collaboration to do.

Shut yourself in the office or find a quiet space away from the rest of your team. I can see this would work from time to time when you have something critical to focus on, but personally I wouldn’t want to make it a regular thing.

He also has lots to say about ‘Inbox Zero’, which is how to filter your incoming mail into folders for reading, action and monitoring. Allcott says that your inbox is not your to do list. But mine is and it works for me. I only have 22 things in there at moment and I can see at a glance what need to be done.

The second brain

Allcott is big on having systems and putting them in place before you need them. He gives the example of the Victorians building sewers and the tube network to have 10 times the capacity required at time. And thank goodness they did, or we’d have some major civil engineering to do right now.

The idea of the second brain is to get stuff out of your head to encourage clear thinking and also to ensure that nothing is forgotten. It’s a system that revolves around lists, checklists and basically having a notebook or app available to store your ideas. Essentially, it’s for when your own brain fails you: you have systems in place to help.

One second brain tool is the ‘waiting for’ list. It’s not a to do list but a list of things that others are doing, for example, getting back to you about the project requirements document by Tuesday.

This stops you having to hold the information in your head and means you can chase up project team members as appropriate. “A Ninja achieves Zen-like calm and is relaxed and confident about what they can’t do right now because their second brain is up to date and reassures them that what they are not doing is under control,” he says.

The Power Hour

“What’s the one activity that, if you did it consistently for an hour a day every day this year, makes a person in your job successful?” Allcott writes. Whatever that activity is, do it, and this becomes your Power Hour. It’s quite a good idea, although I’d be hard pressed to think of one thing a project manager does – communication, probably.

“You feel more present in your work, more engaged, calmer and more at ease with the world around you,” he writes. “That world might feel like it’s burning with urgency, noise, panic and stress but you’re locked in a kind of cocoon. You’re quietly doing what a Ninja does best: you’re shipping and clarifying, completing and organizing, one thing at a time.”

Allcott spends some time writing about which apps you can use to help store your checklists and notes. I think this might date the book, whereas the rest of the advice has a pretty long shelf life.

Overall, if you are struggling to get everything done, then this is a good read, illustrated with cute Ninja characters made from office supplies and with exercises at the end of each chapter so you can put into practice what you have learned. If nothing else, it will reassure you that no one else is managing to get everything done and that picking and choosing your key priorities is the only way to stay sane on your busy project.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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