Graham Allcott is one of the most productive people I know. Which isn’t surprising. His book How to be a Productivity Ninja was a huge success when it was first published five years ago, and has become the cornerstone of his business, Think Productive. There’s a new edition of that book on the way, but there’s also a bigger conversation around the principles within it.
‘It’s a conversation that happens regularly, where people say, “Hey, this whole kind of way of approaching productivity and this way of approaching managing yourself, how can this apply to nutrition?” “How can this apply to parenting?” “How can this apply to email?” There are so many different facets that you could apply this to. So the idea is to create a series called ‘The Productivity Ninja Guide’, and they all have their own title, but they all sit under that series.’
This is a fascinating case study in business, brand and book working in perfect harmony, and contains some fascinating insights too into creativity and focus, productivity (natch), and collaborating with a co-author. Stop messing about on your phone, adopt the Sri Lanka mindset, and listen up.A fascinating case study in business, brand and book working in perfect harmony. Click To Tweet
Graham’s site: http://www.grahamallcott.com/
Think Productive: https://thinkproductive.co.uk/
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Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club, and it’s a delight to be here again with Graham Allcott, who is an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and podcaster. He’s the author of three books, including the global best-seller, ‘How to be a Productivity Ninja’, first published in 2014, which is coming out in a new edition in 2019. He is the founder of Think Productive, one of the world’s leading providers of personal productivity training and consultancy, with offices in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands, and he’s host of the popular business podcast, Beyond Busy, which explores the issues of productivity, work/life balance, and how people define happiness in their lives. And also, more important than any of that, he was a guest on episode five of the Extraordinary Business Book Club, so welcome back, Graham.
Graham Allcott: Good to be here. Thanks for having me back.
Alison Jones: Really, really good to have you back. So, we’ll talk about the book obviously, but let’s talk about the podcast first because you started Beyond Busy I think just a couple months before I started this podcast. You started in February 2016, and of course as I say, you were one of my very, very first guests, so here we are three years on. How is the podcast working out for you?
Graham Allcott: Yeah, really good. The initial idea for the podcast Beyond Busy was really to give me an excuse to go and talk to loads of interesting people for a book that I am writing, and-
Alison Jones: Brilliant. I mean, what better reason could there be to start a podcast?
Graham Allcott: Yeah. So the idea is that I interview people in quite a long form way, most the interviews are an hour long. They’re basically conversations between me and somebody in a place, in a time, and it’s designed to feel like that, so it’s almost like you’re sitting there with a cup of coffee at the café table with us kind of thing, that’s the general idea of it. But the original idea was that I would do that really as research for the book. It’s kind of turned into something slightly different in that it’s now a thing in its own right, and the book has ended up being put very much on the back burner because it feels like me writing a book about happiness and the meaning of life, which is quite hard, so I’m basically spending a lot of time doing that. So I do have a contract for the book, but I’ve managed to get them to shift the date. I think it’s like September 2021 or something is the actual date I have to be done.
Alison Jones: Kicking it into the long grass.
Graham Allcott: Kind of, because I just feel like, for me, it feels like it’s going to be the most important thing I’ve ever written, and it feels like I want to really get it right and I just want to take my time. So I’ve got other books, as we’ll talk about, that are in the queue before I get around to Beyond Busy, but it’s been a nice excuse to talk to everyone from MPs, to Olympic gold medallists, to, I had Gerald Ratner on the show, which was incredible, and right through to Rachel Parris from Mash Report, and Grace Petrie, one of my favourite singer-songwriters was on, that actually goes out tomorrow as we’re chatting right now. So yeah, it’s just a really interesting experience, being able to just spend an hour with people and really get to know them and explore their soul. That’s the real thrill of Beyond Busy is that we ask the difficult questions about money, and fears, and stuff that often gets left out of these kind of things.
Alison Jones: That’s fascinating because one of the great things about podcasting I think is that it’s quite an intimate medium. I mean, you and I are talking by Zencaster, we’re talking remotely, but actually when you’re in the room with someone with a cup of coffee in front of you, I imagine that gets really quite deep sometimes.
Graham Allcott: It does, yeah. I mean, I had tears on the last one, which was Sally-Anne Airey talking about her regrets of having a career as one of the first female commanders in the Royal Navy, and feeling like she neglected her kids growing up and stuff, and it was a very emotional thing for both of us being involved in it, and that’s the general idea. I think you just get … you get a lot more when you go deep and you spend an hour rather than 10, 15 minutes, which is often what I … I’ve sort of done that format before, and been on both sides of that before, but the deep thing, it has drawbacks. So I think we probably don’t get as many listeners as we would have if it was a nice, slick 25 minutes thing. But like you say, I think the people who do listen really do love it, and just get very into it, and it’s very intimate because of all that.
Alison Jones: That’s fascinating. And I think the lesson for everybody listening is, if you’re going to do a podcast, be really clear about what you want to get out of it, and just be really happy to take it in the direction in which it goes because it’s got to serve you as well, and you’ve got to enjoy it, and I think that’s the thing that surprised me about the podcast. I did it really quite utilitarian, like you, I was like, “I’ll get good material for the book.” And it’s become this thing that I just love, it’s become such an important part of my life and who I am online, and you watch it evolve in time in unexpected directions, it’s really interesting.
Graham Allcott: For sure. And what’s kind of terrifying about it as well is that just as an interviewer, it’s very different from writing books when you have control over the direction and the structure and what’s going to be said and all that stuff. As the interviewer, it’s totally beholding to you to just get the best out of the other person. So it can just go wherever it needs to go, and you have to just relinquish control of that and just be totally open to that. So I really love that side of it as well. It’s probably one of the things that really … that and doing improv comedy and a couple of other things were the things that really helped me hone my listening skills the most.
Alison Jones: Yes. I was just going to say, it’s about listening. Now I feel massive pressure as the podcast host talking to you, so thanks for that.
Graham Allcott: I was open to thinking, as I said before, about we delve deep into the soul in fears and money and stuff, but that kind of opens me up for you to ask me about all that as well. You know.
Alison Jones: That’s funny. Well we’re going to stay on books, so hopefully that’s nicely above the water. Let’s retreat quickly to the safety of talking about … Seriously, because I think ‘Productivity Ninja’ is such an interesting case study in a sense. You and I, anybody who hasn’t listened to the original episode do because that’s all the background, we’re not going to rehash that now, but the amazing thing is in ‘Productivity Ninja’, five years old, and here you are doing a new edition of it. What was it like going back and revisiting it, and how did you take what you had, which is fairly perennial, and revise it for five years on? Which, on the one hand is a huge amount of time, on the other hand is not that long, really, in the grand scheme of things.
Graham Allcott: Yeah, true. Yeah, it’s a long time when you think about it in terms of technology and things that changed, and it’s not a long time at all when you think about some of the more perennial ideas about how you add value to information, how you think, how you organise, all that stuff. So it was all of that really. Going back to it was interesting. I don’t know if this is true of lots of other authors, but I often have a copy of my book in my bag, and I give it out almost like a glorified business card to people. But it made me realise going back through it just how rarely I ever actually opened a copy of my own book. Like, I haven’t read any of the words in it for like four years. So it was kind of interesting in that way. There were bits in it that I sort of fell in love with again, and I have a terrible memory as well, so going back through it was like, “Oh yes, that’s very well expressed.”
Alison Jones: “Who wrote this? This is excellent.”
Graham Allcott: Yes. And then there were other bits where I was like, “Oh. I wouldn’t necessarily be as brash and bravado about that thing today as I was five years ago.” Just things like that, kind of subtle changes as well, but I think the main thing, with a lot of books around productivity, I guess, other similar topics, leadership, and various other business topics, I think you kind of have two choices as you write. You either have the choice to make it very abstract and textbook and perennial, and really have no grounding in the real world, or you make it really practical, which includes in my book things like, download this thing in Outlook and create these folders. And it’s really down-in-the-weeds practical stuff. Download this app, it’ll help you do this. And if you take that approach, then it probably does need refreshing every five to ten years because a lot of those apps change and go out of fashion and stuff.
And one of the things going into organisations is.. Think Productive goes into lots of big corporate organisations, and actually how people are behaving in corporate life hasn’t changed that much in five years, but I think how people are behaving in their personal lives, and how they use phones, and how people interact with technology has really moved on quite a lot in five years. So I think that was really, for me, the biggest part of the shift was how to manage technology, and phones in particular, with people’s attention, and some of the other stuff in the book about how to manage attention basically.
Alison Jones: Let’s just dig into that for a minute. So if we’re not that different in how we approach our work, but personally the way we organise our attention has changed, what does that mean for us as people? Are we more or less productive? Are we disassociated at work? What does that mean?
Graham Allcott: Well, I think in terms of the relationship with phones thing, I think the apps and the software around phones has become more addictive, and slicker, and better-
Alison Jones: Quite deliberately so, of course-
Graham Allcott: Yeah.
Alison Jones: That’s what gets-
Graham Allcott: There’s a whole industry around making it so, you know? And to think that your own willpower is smarter than that is just grossly naïve. So where does that leave you? Well, I think it leaves all of us in this situation of, well, we have to create better boundaries for ourselves and treat ourselves like children in many regards. So one of the things that … The new book has a whole chapter called ‘Stop Messing About on Your Phone’.
Alison Jones: I love that title.
Graham Allcott: I wanted a swear word in there, but the publishers weren’t so keen.
Alison Jones: Damn you, publishers.
Graham Allcott: Just to go back to the original spirit of ‘Productivity Ninja’, which was before I’d get it into the publisher, the first go round, there were loads of swear words, and they all kind of got stripped out eventually, but the idea was just to be totally straight talking with it. But yeah, there’s a whole chapter called ‘Stop Messing About on Your Phone’, and one of the big ideas in that chapter is to set up different modes on your phone for the different modes of work.
So I basically talk about three modes of work. So you have ‘create’ mode, which is where your job is to really get your head down, use the best attention, the best energy that you have, which I think is two to three hours a day, it’s a concept I talk about in the book called proactive attention, and to use that time to really create the stuff that matters. So whether that’s creating podcasts, whether that’s creating Word documents, reports, Excel spreadsheets, whatever it is, everybody has to get some things done, get some things created as part of their work. And sometimes that creation is just creating really good ideas, or good thinking and problem solving, but it’s that kind of mental heavy lifting of getting down and doing the deep stuff. So that’s create.
Then you have ‘collaborate’, which is more where your job is actually to help everybody else get their work done. So it’s email, it’s being in meetings, it’s communication, it’s all that kind of side of things. And the final one is ‘chill’. So I think you work best and your brain works best when its regularly rested and refuelled.
: So we have to actually think about our relationship with phones in relation to chill as well, and actually spending some time … You know, if you spend all day on email and messages and you get home and you spend all evening in front of a tiny screen checking emails and messages, then you’re not really giving your brain much of a break. So the idea really is to take those three modes and then say, well with our phones, and probably in an app. So the app I use around this is called Quality Time, you set up different modes so basically your phone is blocked for certain activities in those three modes. So it’s really a way of … in a way, you do a disciplinarian job on yourself once, and take the hard decisions once, and the rest of the time, you get to treat yourself like a child and just stick to this without access to Instagram, or Twitter, or whatever at those times. And for me, that just works really, really well, and I think it’s the thing that keeps me sane.
And I think it’s just a better … for me, it feels more balanced than the alternatives, which is either to ignore the problem and get a lot less done, or to go down this route of digital detox and going away for a weekend and not having your phone for three days is all great, and then on Monday-
Alison Jones: Then you come back.
Graham Allcott: Or this thing of get rid of your smartphone completely. “Hey, I’m going to have a dumb phone that doesn’t do anything.” Well, it feels like with all this amazing technology, it’s worth something. It does have its uses, and there are a lot of apps that I would definitely say I couldn’t live without, but I don’t want them on all the time, so for me, that feels like the best way to get the right balance.
Alison Jones: Yeah, that feels really smart. I like the blend of pragmatism and humility around that. Let’s just recognise how we actually work and not run away from that and say, “Well, I should have stronger willpower…” Just, “You know, this is how it is, and therefore I’m going to set these rules.” I like that. And I think also the problem, of course, is you can just stay in ‘collaborate’ the whole time, even when you’re not usefully collaborating, so actually even just being aware of those modes I think is really helpful. I think the create one is the one… I guess many people don’t ever enter that space because they’re too busy messing around on their phone.
Graham Allcott: Yeah, and for me, it’s all morning. For some of my colleagues at Think Productive it’s an hour a day, so there’s no set rule about how long you’re in create mode, but for me, I’m writing books, I’m creating podcasts, I’m pretty independent within my own business, so a lot of my time is self-directed, and for me, content creation is a big thing. But there may be people who just a couple of hours a week is all you need in that create mode, but the point is when you’re going to sit down and decide to do that, take it seriously and make sure you use that time well.
Alison Jones: Yes. Excellent. And beyond the book, there’s a publishing strategy below that as well, which is really interesting. So that ‘Productivity Ninja’ brand, which is a brilliant brand name, by the way, you have extended that in really interesting ways. So you’ve created a book that was specifically aimed at students who have to be a ‘study ninja’, and you’ve narrowed down the focus to particular pinpoints, like, get your inbox down to zero, and I know that in 2019, you’ll be publishing ‘Work Fuel’ with Colette Heneghan, which I understand is the start of a whole new series, taking the ‘ninja’ principles into different aspects of our work lives. So I just think is a fascinating approach, so tell us a little bit about how its come about and where you see it going.
Graham Allcott: I think it sort of came about by accident is the really honest answer-
Alison Jones: It so often does. Emergent strategy. That’s what we like to call it.
Graham Allcott: So we did … We were kind of thinking about, after ‘Productivity Ninja’, what next? I had so many conversations when I was running workshops in companies with people saying, “How can I apply this with my kids?” So we did ‘Study Ninja’ after that, which just felt like a really obvious thing. I loved doing that. In hindsight, I think I probably would have changed that to be called ‘The Productivity Ninja’s Guide to Studying’, and then have it be part of this series. But really, it’s a conversation that happens regularly in all kinds of places, where people say, “Hey, this whole kind of way of approaching productivity and this way of approaching managing yourself, how can this apply to,” and insert blank here, so, “How can this apply to nutrition?” “How can this apply to parenting?” “How can this apply to email?” There’s so many different facets that you could kind of apply this to. So the idea was to create a little series called ‘The Productivity Ninja Guide’ series, and they all have their own title, but they all kind of sit under that series.
So the first one is ‘Work Fuel’, which is really a book about capturing three or four years of Colette Heneghan coaching me in nutrition. So in the last few years, I really noticed that my own energy was dipping a bit, and I don’t know if that was getting into my mid-30s, and I’m 40 now, but realising that I had lower energy than before. I had some battles with depression and stuff, which is a sort of ongoing thing I need to keep on top of as well just in terms of mental health. But for me, it was this huge revelation of how I thought I ate pretty well before, but actually how just changing diet and really thinking about nutrition could just totally change my mental state on a really regular basis.
So I’ve been coached by Colette for three or four years, as I say, and it’s one of those ones that came up really obviously when the publishers were talking to me about next books, I was like, “Well, I really want to just work with Colette and distil all of that wisdom that she has and ideas we’ve developed around this for people.” For the price of a couple of lattes versus the idea that … I was lucky enough to be able to pay Colette to do coaching with me, but not everybody can do that, so it was really about how can we get this out there in the best possible way? So that’s coming next year, coming in March next year. And really scarily, we’re still working on the draft, but someone emailed us and said they pre-ordered it on Amazon, and we were like, “All right, okay.”
Alison Jones: Let’s do it now.
Graham Allcott: Better get a move on. That’s quite a scary kind of lizard-brain moment for an author. When you’re already slightly nervous about hitting a deadline and someone puts that pressure on you, it’s pretty daunting.
Alison Jones: It’s interesting because it does expand your space in a really… And when you say it, it’s obvious. I mean, obviously how productive we are has so much to do with our endocrinology, but you don’t necessarily think of that immediately when you think of productivity. You think of time management, you think of inboxes, you think of all that kind of above-the-surface stuff, so it’s almost like your podcast, isn’t it? You’re going to actually what’s underneath this.
Graham Allcott: It’s pretty mad because Colette came round and we had a day just kind of looking at, brainstorming the ideas and everything, and part of that was we just spent about a half hour on Amazon just looking at books about food and stuff. And it was just really shocking to me that there wasn’t … if you think of how many books there are out there about time management, self management, and then how many books there are out there in the world about food, nutrition, lifestyle, all this kind of stuff, and by the way, if you look at the top 20 books on Amazon at any time, at least 14 of them are to do with either lifestyle or food. And it was just really amazing to me that there was nothing that really bridged that gap. So I’m really bullish about it. I think it could be a huge thing and could actually overtake ‘Productivity Ninja’ actually in terms of just the size and scale of what could come after it. So, yeah. We’ve got an interesting little theory ahead of us, trying to work out how to best market that and make sure that it reaches that potential really.
Alison Jones: Yes. Brilliant. And the things that also – I just want to pick out for people listening who are thinking, “Huh, that’s really interesting,” – the power of the brand. So ‘Productivity Ninja’ can go in so many different directions, and it’s so distinctive. So if you’re thinking of a Ronseal approach to your title, maybe dig a little bit deeper, find if there’s a distinctive way of proposing it, which will enable you to sort of move it on. And I guess the other thing is if you are extending, you don’t have to do it all yourself. You can partner with people who are experts in adjacent fields to you and together create something that’s bigger than … so much bigger than the parts … You know the phrase I’m groping after here.
Graham Allcott: Yeah, and I think one caveat I would add to that, though, is that the CEO at Icon Books, we had dinner about a year ago, and we were kind of having a very high level, what next kind of conversation, and that was really what led to … Actually, it was pretty longer ago than a year, it was probably more like two years ago. Anyway, we were having lunch, and one of the things he convinced me of was, “Well, if you would start partnering and co-authoring on different books, then actually you can increase the outcome and the frequency that the ‘Productivity Ninja’ guide books can come into the world.” Sort of thing. And I totally believed him, but it’s totally wrong.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s got to be the right collaboration.
Graham Allcott: Yes, but I think any collaboration on the book, even if you’re working with someone you’re very in tune with like I am with Colette, just the level of communication needed on working together on the book versus just being able to do that yourself and communicate with an editor is, yeah, it kind of took me by surprise, it’s taken a lot longer to come through. So I’m kind of regretting now this idea of-
Alison Jones: That’s really interesting. Well, let’s get back to you writing again.
Graham Allcott: But I … You know, all of that said, there’s no way I could have written a book about nutrition without Colette because she really is the gold mine of knowledge on all this stuff.
Alison Jones: It’s just, like anything in life, harder than you think it’s going to be.
Graham Allcott: Yes. It’s been like that, there’s a saying about the optimal number of people to be on any project. So I think Apple works in a way where if there are more than seven people working on a particular project team, then they split. So you can never have more than seven, and that’s just to do with the number of communication strands that then need to exist if you’ve got that many people, so I don’t know. Maybe I’m rambling, but I kind of feel like with books, the magic number really is one in terms of the productivity of writing.
Alison Jones: I’ve had a really interesting set of conversations around this actually where there’s people who write completely separately and don’t show each other anything until the end, and then they just sort of send it separately to the publisher, and other people, like Lyn and Donna, my wonderful Trusted authors, who sat down and wrote every word together, and never a cross word.
Graham Allcott: Yeah, Colette and I were somewhere in the middle, but that uneases me that anyone could write half of a book without knowing what the other person is going to write.
Alison Jones: I think that was the extreme, yes. But when we first talked, and I’ve never forgotten this, you told me how basically you were just failing to get the book written, and in the end, you took yourself off to a beach hut in Sri Lanka and just – no wireless, no nothing – and you just sat and wrote the book, which gave me huge beach hut envy because my equivalent is going down to Costa. Is that how you still work, or has writing changed for you since you first wrote that?
Graham Allcott: Yeah, it’s changed quite a lot, and there’s only one reason why that’s changed: I’ve got a kid now.
Alison Jones: Makes a difference doesn’t it? They really cramp your style.
Graham Allcott: Yes, but what I will say, and I say this a lot in keynotes, actually, is that actually the thing about why Sri Lanka worked for me was I took myself off there, there was nothing else to do, there was no wifi in this place, it was just total immersion and being head down, and I think that can be a physical thing, like going to a physical space, but it’s also a mindset as well. So I still carry with me that Sri Lanka mindset, which is what I was saying before about the phone thing, just making sure that there are times when the phone is switched off, making sure there are times where … For many years, I’ve kind of changed my home set up now a little bit where I’ve got an office in the garden, but when I worked in the house, I would have a time switch on my internet, so on the actual router, it would time switch it off first thing in the morning and wouldn’t come back on until about quarter to one. And that’s a very deliberate strategy to sort of be remote, and be offline, and have that Sri Lanka mindset, but just from my desk at home. So I think that’s something that, even though I don’t go to Sri Lanka, I don’t need to.
Alison Jones: You bring Sri Lanka to you, and I love that.
Graham Allcott: I’d love to, but I have to do the school run and stuff.
Alison Jones: Yes, I’m at the point where I can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sri Lanka beckons within a few years’ time.
Graham Allcott: Yes. I’ve got many more years to go.
Alison Jones: I always ask my guests to recommend a book as well. So obviously, obviously everybody should read ‘Productivity Ninja’, they probably already have, but apart from that, what business book do you recommend that everyone listening today should read?
Graham Allcott: Well, I think the book that I’ve most enjoyed about productivity, because obviously I wouldn’t say mine, it’s bold or un-humble to say my own, but I think the business book I’ve most enjoyed about productivity is ‘Linchpin’ by Seth Godin, which is a few years old now, but for me, what I really loved about is I think there are so many business books in general that just are not written with any heart, and I think Seth Godin is someone who always writes with a lot of heart and a really clear sense of what his values are and what he’s about, and that book I just found really inspiring.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. And do you know, I thought I had read most Seth Godin books, but I have not read that one, so I’ll seek it out.
Graham Allcott: I think it’s the best, by far. Yeah, I really do.
Alison Jones: Okay, I love Seth Godin, and he’s got a new one out that I’m really excited about reading. Brilliant. So great. If people want to find out more about you, more about ‘Productivity Ninja’, more about Think Productive, where should they go?
Graham Allcott: So, you can find most stuff at GrahamAllcott.com, which is Graham with the H spelling and Allcott with double L, double T. GrahamAllcott.com. The podcast is GetBeyondBusy.com, and my company is Think Productive, so you can find us at ThinkProductive.com and ThinkProductive.co.uk.
Alison Jones: Awesome, and I’ll put all those links up on the show notes ExtraordinaryBusinessBooks.com as usual, along with the transcript of this interview so you can read it back as well as listening back. And thank you, Graham. Brilliant to talk to you again. It’s so interesting to just kind of check in a few years on and see how things have changed, to see where the book’s going. I think one of the most exciting things about working with business books is the way that, as well as business, books kind of take a life of their own, and because you’ve got that engine behind them, they can go into such interesting and unexpected spaces, and I think this is just such a great example of that.
Graham Allcott: Yeah, for sure. And I think for me, the other thing about books, which I think is just really interesting and inspiring is, you know when you get those emails from someone, it says like, “I’m in Tokyo and I’ve just read your book.” Those things just blow my mind. So those things that you can reach people in places that you’d never get to go and work or you obviously just don’t have the time, or you’ve never thought to be there, and for me, that’s the real thrill about books really, and just the idea that someone has taken the time to sit and spend time with your ideas and your voice is just, I just find it massively humbling. So yeah, really grateful to be able to do what I do, and thank you for what you do as well.
Alison Jones: Oh, you’re very welcome. I always love it when someone says, “I’m just in the bath with your book.” That always makes me happy. When you go on holiday with someone. It’s great, isn’t it? Lovely to talk to you, Graham. Thank you so much for your time today.
Graham Allcott: Thanks, Alison.