When we email Graham Allcott, the author of “How to Be a Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More and Love What You Do,” his auto response tells us that he is only “processing emails (back down to zero) on Monday afternoons and Thursday mornings” in his “quest to become a better human being (as well as a more productive one).”
Allcott is putting the nimble approach to productivity he preaches into practice — an approach based on the idea that time management (a concept that has always been a bit of a misnomer) doesn’t work in a digital age.
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“You can’t manage time. You can manage your choices around time, but you can’t manage time and slow it down or speed it up yourself,” says Allcott. “I think also what’s happened is that most of the books that are famous around time management — Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” — they’ve got really good stuff in them, but if Covey was writing that book now, it’d be different.”
Time management applied back when “information overload” meant getting six pieces of paper in an in-tray between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m, explains Allcott. Today, with a steady stream of information coming at us 24/7, more of our time is spent reacting and putting out fires. That means we often don't know what each day will look like — and it requires us to be more agile.
Allcott gave us a few pointers on managing our attention — ninja-style.
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Don’t check email, process email
When our inboxes are ever present in the background, we’re never giving email our full attention, but it's always pulling focus, explains Allcott. Our Pavlovian response to immediately check every email and alert is making us feel overwhelmed and behind.
He suggests “hacking” — making one decision about as many emails as possible, like deleting everything older than six months. When we don't treat email as an "ever-growing mountain" its easier to keep our inboxes at zero.
“It’s not about religiously every second of the day having nothing in your inbox, but about having a mentality where when you process your email, you come back to zero,” he says.
Avoid email first thing in the morning
Yes, we know. This sounds counterintuitive, if not downright batty.
“The thing to fill that [email] void in with — because for most people that feels so weird — is a daily checklist. On your daily checklist, you’re answering the question, ‘What are the one or two different priorities that I want to do today?’ You start there.”
Allcott calls these priorities “big rocks,” and says asking yourself, “How is my energy today?” can help define them.
“Think about which tasks will require the most brain power or physical energy. There’s usually one or two things, sort of the big chunky things, that if we don’t do them when we have our best energy, we’ll put them off,"he explains. "That usually comes earlier in the day. I always say if you’ve got seven big rocks, you’ve got no big rocks. So pick one or two, and let the small bits fall in and around that.”
Scan for DUST
Allcott is all about shining light into those metaphorical nooks and crannies where procrastination festers — and he’s even created an acronym to get us started. So get DUST-y tasks out of the way early:
Difficult: Complicated tasks that may take a long time
Undefined: Tasks you haven’t quite figured out where to start that might require some sorting
Scary: Awkward conversations or calling people you’re dreading — tasks you fear or worry about
Tedious: Filing, expense work — all the stuff that you simply don’t want to do that can be blasted through later in the day
Be less ambitious
When we put too much on our plate, it sets us up for failure, says Allcott.
“We need to be more realistic and kind to ourselves in how we set the day up," he says. "Productivity comes when you feel good about yourself and when you feel momentum, and if you spend the your whole time thinking, 'Oh, there’s not enough I’m getting through,' then you spend most of your timing feeling like crap for all the stuff you’re not doing.”