The Making of “How to be a Productivity Ninja”, Part One: Learning from mistakes

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In 2001, I arrived in the world of work with a burning ambition to change the world.  I threw myself fully and chaotically into my first ‘proper’ job, running student volunteering at the University of Birmingham.  I think we did pretty well.  We expanded the profile of volunteering on campus pretty enormously, went from about 300 students volunteering when I started to about 2000 three years later, and we inspired dozens of new student-led community projects, many of which have gone on to become successful charities and community enterprises in their own right.

But there was a consequence.  I was working incessantly and restlessly and was in severe danger of burnout.  I was in on weekends, because students were changing the world on weekends too.  And when the university holidays came and my whole building closed at 5pm, I was always the last one being dragged from my computer keyboard at 5.30.  My boss even phoned my now wife on her personal mobile, begging her to force me to take a day off.

Then, I discovered Stephen Covey’s book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”.  Strip away some of the naff American guru stuff and it’s a really useful book.  I realised I needed more balance, it focussed me less on work and more on life again and I took several months out working on HIV education programmes in rural Uganda.

After I returned, I became Chief Executive of Student Volunteering England, the national charity that promoted student volunteering.  I’d gone from licking envelopes in a shabby university basement office to talking about student volunteering at 10 Downing Street in just a few short years (and incidentally, I was so busy that I had to go to Downing Street wearing a second hand suit I’d bought in Uganda because I didn’t have time to go and buy a ‘proper’ one.)

After three years of giving that job my all, teetering once again on the brink of burnout in my quest to change the world, I decided I needed to change.  My neglected passion for many years was music and songwriting, so I developed a freelance business so that I could fill the rest of my time pursuing my music – swapping early morning breakfast meetings for late night gigs in random parts of London.  I even managed a couple of festival appearances and a CD.

Around that time, I started to give a lot more thought not just to the work itself, but the process of my work – “How could I do this more easily?  What’s most important here?”.  I also read David Allen’s important book “Getting Things Done” and read blog posts from Merlin Mann on 43folders.com.  It was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me: we really can change the world, or achieve what we really want to achieve, without it being so hard.  Relaxed productivity is actually easier than pent-up panic and frustration.

And I started to talking to people about it.  A lot.  In fact, I talked to people so much that they asked me to run workshops for their teams or sit with them at their desks and show them the secret sauce.

My secret was to tell them that there wasn’t any secret sauce, but doing simple things consistently and well could make all the difference.  Around that time I was freelancing in charities and government departments and sensing that I wasn’t the only person who’d been struggling with these kind of issues.  I’d been on time management training before, but it all seemed a little academic, tired, even insincere.

And so Think Productive was born, in 2009.  It perhaps wasn’t the best idea to start a niche training company just as a large recession hit the UK and the rest of the world, but looking back I still maintain that whilst certainly risky, doing this work in such a time of economic depression is all the more important.  So we did it.

We’ve grown as an organisation since then.  And once again I’ve gone from stapling the training handouts and licking envelopes in the shabby spare room/cupboard of my rented flat to being featured in major websites and magazines about productivity.  So this book feels like the natural next step.  I look forward to an invite to Downing Street to talk productivity there too.  This time, I’ll be wearing a proper suit.


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