‘Productivity isn’t just about efficiency.’
As a Productivity Ninja, Grace Marshall was used to helping people who were struggling – with overloaded inboxes, poor time management, any number of everyday productivity pits. But she noticed that in many cases there was a different kind of struggle going on, one that wasn’t talked about so much, one that couldn’t be solved with a shiny new system, one that could even hide beneath a frenzy of productivity.
Gradually she realised that this kind of struggle isn’t a sign that something’s getting in the way of the work, it IS the work. And so she started a new conversation about struggle – professionally and personally.
(It was a struggle. Naturally.)
Struggle site: www.strugglethebook.com
Grace’s site: https://gracemarshall.com/
Grace on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GraceMarshall
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Grace Marshall, author of the award-winning How to be Really Productive. She’s known for her refreshingly human approach to productivity. She’s been featured in The Guardian, Forbes and Huff Post, and her work as a Productivity Ninja has helped thousands of people to replace stress, overwhelm and frustration with success, sanity and satisfaction. Her latest book Struggle: The surprising truth, beauty and opportunity hidden in life’s shittier moments, is just out from Practical Inspiration Publishing. Welcome to the show, Grace.
Grace Marshall: Thank you so much for having me, Alison.
Alison Jones: Oh, it’s brilliant to have you here. Well, firstly, congratulations. How does it feel?
Grace Marshall: Do you know what, third time, third book still feels just as amazing as the first book. Definitely. It’s, it’s a bit like, I was saying to somebody else the other day, it’s a bit like sending your kid to school and you’re nervous, you’re hoping that they’re going to find their people.
And so there’s all the kind of butterflies as part of that, but it’s also like the whole point of having kids is that you send them out into the world. So that’s how it feels. Yeah.
Alison Jones: I can’t tell you how timely that is for me, you know, we’ve just moved and that’s exactly what’s going on here. Oh yes, absolutely. So what really is interesting is, and you and I have talked about this, but I thought we could explore it here as well, is that you are one of the most organized, sorted, productive people on the planet. I mean, this is what you do for a job. If there was to be a usual suspects roll call of people who struggle, you wouldn’t make the shortlist, Grace. So tell me about what shifted in you and why you wanted to write about this rather than telling people how to sort their emails.
Grace Marshall: So it’s so interesting. I think that it was a convergence of a few different things in work and in life, I’ll tell you about the work bit first. And so, yes, absolutely. As a productivity ninja the work that I do is about, in a lot of ways, fixing other people’s struggles. So it’s like, if you’re struggling with your inbox, I can help with that.
If you’re struggling with overload, with overwhelm, with too much going on, too many meetings, all that kind of classic productivity stuff, I can definitely help to fix that. But having worked for so many people in that way, I noticed there was still some areas of struggle where people are going, well, I’ve done all of that and I’m still struggling: what’s going on Grace? And the more I looked into it, the more I realized, maybe this isn’t struggle that needs to be fixed. Maybe actually it’s to do with how we look at it. So for example, if you’re breaking new ground, if you’re in new territory, if you’re in leading in uncertain times and let’s face it, who isn’t right now, then there’s going to be a lot of stuff that is where struggle is part of the journey.
You know, struggle is, is just the sign of the times of what you’re going through. And when we feel like that’s something that needs to be fixed, we end up reacting to it in quite a limited way. We often end up with either a fight or flight response to it. Either it’s something I’ve got to like fix and control or it’s something that means I’m in the wrong place and I need to get out. And yet sometimes, what I’ve found is that struggle can be the birthplace of our best work. So yes, rather than feeling like I’m in the wrong place or something’s getting in the way, it’s like, actually this IS the work. This is exactly where I need to be.
And when we realize that then our whole perspective and how we engage with struggle changes. And that’s just a conversation that I wasn’t hearing people talk about when we talk about struggle. So that’s something I wanted to explore from a professional perspective. But then from a personal perspective, you know, my kids are now 15 and 12 and this the idea for this book started back in gosh, 2018, so that’s like three years ago now. And they were just getting to a point where I was noticing that… the shift between when they are tiny babies and every time they cry, it means I’ve got to do something about it. I’ve got to fix something. I’ve got to give them something to make that whatever’s making them cry, go away.
And clearly that wasn’t an easy thing to do. And I wasn’t perfect and I didn’t always manage it, but I saw my role as I need to fix it for them. And they were just getting to the age where, when they say, Mummy, this is hard. I realized that actually what they need to hear from me more often, isn’t, Oh, here, let me fix it for you. What they needed to hear from me is like, Yes, it is hard. And yes, we can do hard things, to borrow a term from Glennon Doyle, who’s one of my favorite authors, and they need to hear that because if all they hear is No, it’s not that hard, let me do it for you, then they start learning that struggle is something that means that something’s wrong and something’s wrong with them rather than like actually no, it’s: Yes, this is part of life and you can absolutely do this.
Alison Jones: And it’s so interesting, that point about the conversation and both professionally and personally, when somebody says I’m struggling, I often hear it, and I think most of us probably hear it, as a request for help, as an invitation to come and fix things, as you say. And I don’t think most of us are equipped with a different answer to that. So even, even just that answer: Yes, this is a hard thing. I mean, just having that kind of vocabulary to talk about it, it’s really interesting.
Grace Marshall: Yes, absolutely. And I think also just noticing what it does to us, when we start to use that vocabulary, I think we start to our typical response to struggle is one of fear. It’s basically either fight or flight. You know, it’s either, this is a battle I need to fight, or I need to hustle on harder or an enemy I need to destroy or it’s something like a trap I need to avoid or a sign that I’m in the wrong place and I need to run away. And they, both of those are kind of really limited responses. Whereas if we start to look at struggle with a different lens, maybe with the curiosity lens, for example, then that just widens the view. It’s not even a middle ground, it’s a wider ground.
And we start to notice like, hang on, what’s the opportunity here? And what role can I play here rather than just someone who fights or runs away? Like what role can I play here? And I think one of the early examples, one of the early excerpts I wrote on the book actually, when I was kind of just playing around with the idea, was the guy who gets all the complaints.
And it actually came from a a day at Waterloo station where I think I was on my way to meet you, Alison. I was on my way to one of your your writing days
Alison Jones: Oh do you remember when we could do that? We could just sit in a room together and write, Oh, wasn’t it wonderful….
Grace Marshall: Yeah, physically together. Yeah, so it was one of those days. And I mean, the thing I don’t miss about those days is when everything goes wrong at the train station. And I think there was fire on the lines and all the trains were grounded and I was trying to get to get out of London as was everybody else.
And it was really interesting because I saw most, most of the guards were locked away in their offices because there was nothing they could do. I noticed one particular train company had completely logged off from Twitter. They weren’t even answering anything anymore. And then, and then there was just this one guy on the platform who was just looking people in the eyes, he was just showing up and, and he was nodding his head and he was listening and he wasn’t able to make anything, you know, go away. He wasn’t able to fix anything, but he was able to be there with them and show that empathy, that compassion.
And it’s just really interesting to me. Like, he’s not seeing this as something to fight. It’s not seeing this as something to run away from. He’s just seeing his role as someone who shows up in the moment, he doesn’t have to fix it, but he was making a massive difference because he was kind of restoring that humanity to that situation where people are going, Okay, at least I’m being listened to here and somebody understands me and he’s, he’s just offering an ear, basically.
And I just thought, yeah, these are the people who get it. You kind of rise to that struggle and rise to that situation, and they show up completely differently.
Alison Jones: And of course there’s so little humanity in so many of our transactions with big companies these days, that’s really powerful, isn’t it?
Grace Marshall: Yes, absolutely. And, and as we’ve seen, I think over the last couple of years, when there is genuinely a lot of panic going on, when there’s a lot of uncertainty, when fear is rifle, or just simply when things are not going well, that sense of conflict, that sense of frustration, can, I guess, push aside a lot of our humanity.
Alison Jones: I think as well, we’ve, we’ve almost been conditioned that, you know, life is so much about ease. So much of what companies do is about making our life easier. And so much of our ambition is about feeling comfortable and happy and all the rest of it. And maybe we’ve got to the point where we see discomfort or struggle, or something’s going wrong as a, really as a red flag, you know, as a sort of, no, there’s something wrong here, it needs to be put right. And I know my Mum’s generation, that, that sense that life isn’t meant to be easy. We, I think, you know, seeing it’s something that is a sign that something has gone wrong is a naturally instinctive thing to do. And one of the things that I loved about reading your book was just that sense that sometimes… it’s like pain, isn’t it?
Sometimes when there’s pain, it’s a, it’s a warning sign and it’s a sign that you need to take your hand off the radiator because it’s too hot. But other times I remember my, my mother-in-law’s and I was asking her a bit about childbirth and, you know, was it painful yet? So naive! And she said, Well, yes, she said, it’s pain, but it’s good pain.
And that phrase has really stuck with me. It’s productive pain. And that I think is sort of what you’re saying here about struggle. That there’s the struggle where your your inbox is too full and it’s just because you haven’t got your system set up right. And then there’s struggle because you’re digging into something that isn’t clear and it’s painful, or there’s a situation that can’t be fixed by waving a wand.
And it doesn’t mean that you have to run away from it. It just means you have to sit with it and go through it and be okay with that.
Grace Marshall: Yes. And also to notice the, so yeah, the reason why I want to talk about the truth, beauty and opportunity hidden in life’s shittier moments is we often, when we’re in the shit, we just see shit like yeah, that’s it. But yeah, there’s often sparks of truth that we discover in that, in those moments, there’s opportunity in the middle of difficulty.
There are things that we discover maybe about ourselves, maybe about each other, that maybe we wouldn’t do if life was easy. So like take innovation, for example, innovation very rarely happens when everything is plain sailing, because there is no need to change anything. Whereas often it’s in the, the friction or in the conflict or in that crisis, when you suddenly go, Ah, things aren’t working that well any more, then it kind of gives way you get that kind of status quo disruption that gives way to changing things and to finding new ways of doing things. And that’s when you, that’s often when you see the biggest innovation, is when things break.
Alison Jones: Yes, that’s so true, isn’t it. And let’s apply struggle to writing, shall we? Because there’ll be a lot of people going, I’ll tell you what I’m struggling with right now, Grace, and that’s writing my book. And I know that this it wasn’t… beautifully, and, you know, ironically, it wasn’t easy writing this either. So are you happy to share that?
Grace Marshall: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the number of times that you checked in on me and go, how’s it going, Grace? I’m like, yeah, I’m struggling. Ha
Alison Jones: Hollow laugh.
Grace Marshall: It’s you know, it’s really interesting. Because I think the first two books were about what I already know. And so my, the process for writing those were fairly straightforward.
You know, it’s still hard. And it still took a lot of work and a lot of effort, but it was quite straightforward in that I had my table of contents. I knew what I want needed to get out out of my head. And it was a case of, you’re getting those things out of my head. This book was a completely different kind of book.
It was an idea that wouldn’t go away. And so it was an exploration. It was discovery. I didn’t really know what I was going to produce at the end of it. So I didn’t have the blueprint to follow up going, this is what I want it to look like. It was like, this is the kind of journey I want to go on. These are the kinds of things I want to explore, and this is what I want it to do for people.
I think I described it as getting the guts out first and then building the skeleton and the skin and everything else around it afterwards.
Alison Jones: What a lovely image. Thank you for that.
Grace Marshall: And yeah. I guess it was, you know, it was probably apt that you know, I had to go through a lot of struggle in writing it myself. So a lot of it was the internal struggle of like, Who am I to be writing this? What do I know anyway? And yes, we all have that kind of existential imposter syndrome type stuff that we all go through.
I’m convinced every single author goes through this. But in particularly with this kind of topic, it was like, well, yes, I don’t know. And that’s exactly the right place I need to be in right now. You know?
Alison Jones: I don’t know whether that would have been comforting or not at the time.
Grace Marshall: Yes, absolutely. And also, you know, one of the things I talk about in the book is the art of letting our work breathe.
So I talk about how, you know, there are dream moments when inspiration grabs you and the ideas bubble over and work just flows. And in between those kind of fleeting moments of brilliance, there’s many more hours of awkward, agonizing, obscure, spluttering sort of wrangling work.
And yes, the flow of it. Yes. In terms of writing I always call my chapter three moments because when I wrote the last book, How to be Really Productive, chapter three was the chapter that I absolutely adored writing. It was the writer’s dream. I, I loved it. I enjoyed it so much.
And that book had 10 chapters. So the other nine chapters were hard work. And I think for this book in particular, there was a lot of just kind of grabbing little ideas and little fleeting thoughts, holding it, you know, holding it so that it doesn’t go away, but holding it lightly enough that it’s got room to breathe and to evolve.
And so I think between, like I said, that the idea came in 2018, I think it was June 2018 I did your book proposal challenge in September. And it wasn’t until 2020, August of 2020, that I wrote, I finished the first draft and completed the manuscript. And I think the first kind of two years, 2018, 2019, it was just picking up ideas, chucking it into the sandpit, as it were. You know, I had a couple of writing retreats where I kind of locked myself away in an Airbnb for a couple of days, that sort of thing, to try and do something. And I’d maybe do like 500 words. So it, yes, in terms of quantity, it looked really unproductive.
But that was the process I needed to go through because when I got to August, 2020, and I had my writing sabbatical and I just kind of turned everything else off and, and went fully immersive I realized that I had more than I thought, like those tiny little things I’d captured along the way, actually there was more there than I realized. And it gave me little hooks to hook onto to get, ah, okay, I can work from there and I can find my way to the next bit and kind of put all those pieces together that way.
Alison Jones: And it is beautifully structured because it isn’t a tight, you know, five-step process or anything like that. It is more episodic, it’s more reflective and thoughtful. Did that structure emerge? I mean, I know that you and I talked quite a lot about how to link it together so that there was a flow, but it’s very light touch, isn’t it?
Grace Marshall: Yes, definitely. I mean, I think I always had an idea that I wanted the book to be something that you could imbibe with a cup of tea. So I had this image of having tea stains all over it. And it’s the sort of thing, because I definitely don’t want to write a heavy book on struggle.
I mean, come on.
Alison Jones: Yes, that would just be cruel.
Grace Marshall: Yeah. So I wanted it to be a book that people could pick up and easily digest and something that they could pick up in the middle of the struggle, not afterwards or before. So it’s like in the middle of it, I can pick it up and I can read it and read something that will make me feel better and like turn a light on in the middle of that tunnel rather than just feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Alison Jones: Little bit chicken soupy, isn’t it? Chicken soup for the soul style.
Grace Marshall: Yeah, that kind of thing. So something that’s kind of easily digestible and good for you. Yeah. It’s something that helps. So not just something that makes you feel better in the moment, but something that gives you something you can use. And so because of that, I wanted to make it very easy to pick up and put down.
So each chapter as it were is very small, they’re like little vignettes that you can dip in and out of. But then I mean, obviously the challenge was how do I then pull that all together into a book? And that took several rounds of figuring it out. But I think we got there.
Alison Jones: Oh, we did. I love it. And I also, just a side note, if you go and have a look at the show notes I’ll put the cover up on there, it is beautiful. It’s scrumpled up paper that actually looked like roses and you know, it just perfectly encapsulates what the book’s about, doesn’t it?
Grace Marshall: Yeah, absolutely. I’m so pleased with that cover and it was really interesting in terms of that process because, yes, there were quite a few different covers and they were all really good in their own way. And when I first saw this cover, it was actually in quite a light sort of pastel colour.
And I loved the concept, but a lot of the feedback I got was: it’s very feminine and this book isn’t just for women. So I was like, yeah, I don’t want to put off half my readership. And so I think in terms of the cover brief of what I went back with was, like, I picked two other ones.
‘I think these are the kind of strongest contenders, but I did also really like this one. It’s just that it looked too feminine,’ and the designer took my thoughts and kind of worked with the two that I’d mentioned, but he also worked on this one as well, and kind of brought all the colours out and I looked at it, I was like, Oh my goodness, that looks so different.
Like that’s, yeah, that’s the one. And I just really enjoy that kind of collaborative process of working through it. And I guess that you, in terms of linking that to struggle, I could have quite easily gone, well, no, that’s not right, we’ll just go with this. But actually, because I’d gone well, it’s not quite right, but here’s what I think about it, then he was able to take that, the designer was able to take that and then play with that and come back. And I think that’s, you know, that whole talking about our struggle, putting it out there, letting somebody in on it, helps us to work with it rather than just discount it.
Alison Jones: Yes. I love that. And you talk in the book as well about the difference between community and crowd, which I loved. And that’s a really nice example of it, isn’t it? It’s about a collaborative sense of community rather than that sense of people just sort of being around and impeding you.
Grace Marshall: Yes, definitely. The image came from one of my newsletters readers, actually, who wrote to me and said, Today I feel like I’m on a really crowded train where I’m kind of jostled up against everybody else. And I’m well aware that if the train stops really suddenly, we’re all going to fall over and I’ll probably, knowing my luck, I’m going to be at the bottom of the heap, but at the same time, right now, these people next to me are also the people who are just holding me up.
Alison Jones: Yes, Yeah, it’s a really powerful image. It’s also an oddly poignant image now, isn’t it? What I wouldn’t give to be rammed into a Tube train with lots of people.
Grace Marshall: Yeah, absolutely.
Alison Jones: I mean in the sense that this whole book is written for writers who are struggling. So I commend it to you if you are in that space. But if I asked you for, for maybe one top tip, Grace, that somebody who is really struggling with their book and starting to think, you know, is this a sign I just shouldn’t be writing a book? You know, what would you say to them?
Grace Marshall: I would say that sometimes nerves are a sign that we care. So yes, when we feel nervous about some things, sometimes we think, Oh, that means I haven’t got what it takes and I’ve got, you know, like maybe it’s not for me and all of that kind of stuff. We see struggle sometimes a sign that we’re not enough.
And I would say sometimes that sign of struggle is that you’re in the absolutely the right place. This is the work that will take you out of your comfort zone. And I think I quoted my friend Jenny in the book actually, who says there there’s very little stretch in the comfort zone, there’s very little comfort in the stretch zone. I did quote Jenny a couple of times, so I think that quote made it into the book. If it didn’t, it, it should have done.
Alison Jones: No, I’m pretty sure it’s in there. I’ve read that or may have read it in a draft, but yes.
Grace Marshall: So you know, rather than seeing it as a sign that you’re not enough, see it as a sign that you’re at the kind of precipice of entering into new territory. And yes, when we enter into new territory, we don’t know what the paths are when it’s new ground, we’re learning new things. So like the whole point is to discover, to explore and to grow rather than to know what you’re doing. So you don’t have to know what you’re doing and you don’t have to get it right.
The whole point is that it’s an opportunity to explore and to grow rather than a sign that you’re not in the right place.
Alison Jones: And that changes your mindset, I think, when you sit down to write, doesn’t it, because you’re not just delivering a project, you’re exploring, you’re grappling with something new …
Grace Marshall: Yes.
Alison Jones: …which I hope makes it feel a bit… not a bit easier, but more okay. It’s all right. And if you’re doing that in a spirit of, I think curiosity is a really helpful word, because I think when you’re curious, it’s very hard to feel fearful or cross or any of the other sort of stuff. It kind of takes over doesn’t it, which is… in a good way.
Grace Marshall: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s several times in the book when I talk about the difference between fear and curiosity, you know, fear says, Oh shit, something’s happening, whereas your curiosity is like, Ooh, something’s happening. That’s interesting. And, yeah, completely changes how we look at it.
But I think also from a productivity perspective, just be aware that when you’re writing a book, when you’re doing anything, when it really, really matters, all of that procrastination, all of the like, Oh, I’m so easily distracted and, This feels really hard. You know, all of that is a sign that this is the work that really matters.
Whereas the stuff that will lure you’re away where you get, Oh, it would be so much easier to answer that email right now. Or let’s just find some quick wins I can tick off the list or or do you know what? I’m just too busy with everything else that I can’t get around to writing the book. All of that is the well-worn paths.
And if you see productivity as efficiency, you’ll think, Oh, I’m going to be far more productive doing those things, you know, the easy things, the quick wins, because then I’ll get the speed and efficiency side of things, but actually productivity isn’t just about efficiency.
And so if you start to see, ah, no, actually this means this is absolutely the right work to be doing, and the other stuff is just holding me away from that. Again, it’s seeing that this IS the work rather than this is the obstacle to my work.
Alison Jones: Yes. And one of the things that spoke to me most, actually, in the book I don’t know if I’ve told you this, was when you talk about how being stuck often doesn’t like being stuck in one place, it often looks like a whirlpool of your own making, actually, it looks more like being all over the place. And that is that productivity frenzy that you can get into when actually you should be doing something else and you’re not.
I just found that hugely helpful.
Grace Marshall: Oh, that’s really interesting to me because yeah, that’s something I always want to hear when people read the book is like, how did that speak to you? Like, what are some of your shitty moments and how has that changed, you know, from what you’ve read in the book?
Alison Jones: Yeah, well, there you go, that was mine. And Grace, I mean, obviously everybody should read Struggle. I don’t care how easy you’re finding life right now, you should read Struggle, but would you recommend another business book for people listening today?
Grace Marshall: Yeah. So I’ve just recently read a book called Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. I’m not sure if it’s particularly a business book. But it’s definitely well worth reading if you’re in business, definitely. As well as if you’re not really. It’s probably a book I would have referenced if I had read it before writing mine.
So if you’re reading my book, and particularly if the chapter on the morning after resonates with you, then definitely dive into a little bit deeper with Burnout. Because you know they talk about completing the stress cycle, which a lot of sense in terms of that feeling of, you know, like I talk about how , sometimes it’s not until after the struggle when everything’s fine again, that it hits you and then you’re like, what’s wrong with me? I can’t get anything done right now. It’s like, ah, that’s what’s going on. So yeah. Burnout is a good book to dive deeper into that.
Alison Jones: Oh, brilliant. I don’t know it. Thank you. Love a recommendation when I don’t know the book. Wonderful. And Grace, if people want to find out more about you or about Struggle, more about the Productivity Ninja stuff, where should they go?
Grace Marshall: So strugglethebook.com is where you’ll find out about the book and gracemarshall.com is where you’ll find out more about me.
Alison Jones: Nicely succinct. Thank you. I will put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com along with the transcript of this conversation. Just a brilliant conversation and so, so profound, but also so practical. How very like you, Grace. Thank you.
Grace Marshall: Thank you so much, Alison.