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Graham Allcott

Think Productive


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How to be a productivity ninja


Discipline. Adaptability. Stealth. It's all in a day's work for the productivity ninja, says Graham Allcott.
The enemy is information overload, stress, tiredness, having too much to do and feeling overwhelmed by the requests and expectations of others. Do you want to surrender and be a victim? Or do you want to be a productivity ninja? 
Adopting the approach and mentality of a ninja can work wonders for your productivity. Here are the nine key characteristics of a productivity ninja:

Zen-like calm

Great decision-making comes from the ability to create the time and space to think rationally and intelligently about the issue at hand. Decisions made during periods of panic are likely to be the ones we want to forget about. The ninja realises this, remains calm in the face of adversity, and equally calm under the pressure of information overload. You might not believe this, but it is entirely possible to have a hundred and one things still to do and remain absolutely calm. How do we beat stress and remain calm? 
Be sure that you're not forgetting important items by keeping all of your support information in a system, not in your head. Be sure that you're not distracted and stressed by what you could be forgetting - by using a 'second brain' instead of your own head as the place where information and reminders live. This is certainly easier said than done, but once mastered, really works.


As well as needing to make more and better decisions, we need to be choosier, too: processing information to sort the wheat from the chaff, see the timber from the trees and sorting the big opportunities from the even bigger ones. Ruthlessness isn't just about how we process information though, it's also about our ability to protect our time and attention, focusing only on the things that add the greatest impact, even at the expense of other things that are 'worth doing'.
"Be sure that you're not forgetting important items by keeping all of your support information in a system, not in your head. Be sure that you're not distracted and stressed by what you could be forgetting"
Being ruthless also means being selective about how we achieve our goals. In some areas of our work, perfection is healthy and even necessary but in other cases, it needs to be avoided as it prevents us from moving on to the next thing and isn't efficient. 


The ninja is skilful on their own, but knows that using the right tools makes them more effective. There is a range of tools out there to help keep us on top of our game. There are two broad types of tools that the productivity ninja needs to have in their armoury:
Thinking tools, such as checklists and management models, provide a way to guide our thinking through tried and tested themes and questions – and because they're models, they don't rely on our own memory, so they work as well at 4pm on a Friday as at 10am on a Monday.
Organising tools, such as to-do list software or well-ordered paper systems give us clarity around what we're doing and help ensure that no project or action gets forgotten at a vital moment.

Stealth and camouflage

One of the worst things you can do is make yourself always available. It's an invitation to some of your biggest enemies: distraction and interruption. Keep out of the limelight until you've got something you need others to hear.
If your attention and focus is likely to be impeded by unlimited access to the internet and you're likely to be tempted by its millions of distraction possibilities (and who isn't?), disconnect once in a while. Yes, turn off the internet. If I turn off my wifi connection for two hours, I get two hours of uninterrupted thinking time. How many of your best ideas really came to you when you were sat behind a desk staring at incoming emails?


What's important is the end result, not the means to get there. Everything else is up for grabs. A productivity ninja should recognise that it doesn't matter how the job gets done. The important thing is that it's done. It's important to be on constant lookout for every opportunity to take advantage of progress and innovation and do things more easily. We must avoid getting stuck in a rut and doing things less efficiently than we could, at all costs.
Doing things differently is risky, even when we've got a good hunch that we've got a better way of doing things. Managers generally prefer the status quo as it gives them an easier life, so doing the thing that challenges the status quo can often tread a fine line between glory and failure. But this isn't about chasing glory (although we'll reluctantly and graciously accept it when it comes along), it's about doing things in a better way and experiencing the satisfaction that comes from pushing boundaries.


A ninja needs to be light on their feet, able to respond with deftness to new opportunities or threats. Anything that requires a lot of shifting of thinking, quick reactions and decisions will of course need our proactive attention. And as we know, this is a finite resource. Our ability to react quickly and appropriately to new challenges really comes down to two things:
  • Our own mental 'reserves' or capacity to spend more of our days in a proactive, 'doing' mode without getting tired. People do this temporarily through the use of caffeine or other stimulants, which is fine to an extent and in the short-term, but we need to think more sustainably than that.
  • Our ability to bring in other resources to aid this process – other people, more time and better technology.


Our minds are our most important tool. Being emotionally intelligent and self-aware is important for so many reasons, not least because they equip you to take action. For instance, a lot of the things that make up the ninja mindset, such as remaining calm, being ruthless and pushing the boundaries by being unorthodox aren't easy. 
Steven Pressfield's book The War of Art is a revealing and personal account of his battles as a writer against what he calls 'the resistance'. The resistance is a mindset characterised by stress, anxiety, fear of failure, fear of success and a whole host of other emotions that whir around our brains and tell us to stand still. Your job as a ninja is to silence those thought processes as much as possible, because resistance is the enemy of productivity. Meditation, regular review of your work and designing 'thinking checklists' to guide your intuition are some of the techniques you can use here.  
"Our minds are our most important tool. Being emotionally intelligent and self-aware is important for so many reasons, not least because they equip you to take action."


Preparedness underpins and strengthens so many of the other characteristics we've just talked about. Zen-like calm in the heat of the battle is only possible if you're well prepared. Agility is only possible if you're starting from a position of being prepared and ready to react immediately, producing the right response. And you're only ready to be ruthless if you've got the energy. Being prepared is about practical preparation as well as mental preparation. Lunch is not for wimps and rest and renewal is vital for longer-term success.

A ninja is not superhuman…but they sometimes appear so

Finally, it's important to note that a ninja is not a superhero. There are too many gurus out there telling you how to be perfect and in doing so, they're selling you a false dream. Don't listen to them. A ninja is a human being, with all the foibles and imperfections that we humans have. We can improve, we can do our best and increase productivity to levels that make us seem like we're productivity superheroes, but we're still prone to the odd moment of making the wrong decision or screwing things up. It's time we focused more on the 99 things we do brilliantly than the one we screw up. Imperfection is a reassuring reminder that there's always more to learn.
Graham Allcott is the founder of Think Productive, a training company specialising in helping people increase productivity. Graham's book, 'How to be a Productivity Ninja' is released on 3 July 2012. More details can be found here

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Graham Allcott


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