Graham Allcott| Interview | Podcast | Maria Franzoni | MFL Global

Interview with Productivity Ninja, Graham Allcott

Maria’s guest on the show is Maria’s guest is Graham Allcott. Graham is the author of the global bestseller How To Be A Productivity Ninja. He is the founder of Think Productive, one of the world’s leading providers of personal productivity training and consultancy. His podcast, Beyond Busy, explores the issues of productivity, work life balance, and how people define happiness in their lives. Previous roles include chief executive of Student Volunteering England, head of volunteering at the University of Birmingham, advisor to the UK Government on youth volunteering policy.

Maria:

Graham thank you very much for joining me.

Graham Allcott:

Great to be here.

Maria:

Yes, wonderful, I’ve not interviewed a ninja before.

Graham Allcott:

Although you once told me that you’d become a ninja from reading the book.

Maria:

We’re going to explore some of that, I need you to help me sharpen some of my skills.

Graham Allcott:

Sure.

Maria:

When you were a youngster, did you wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to be a ninja?” Or did you have other plans for your life?

Graham Allcott:

No, so my original first career, as you were just in the lead off alluding to there, was in volunteering and the charity world and the big transition for me came when I left the job of chief executive of Student Volunteering. So I became a chief executive at quite a young age, and then I left that job, I went freelance, I was doing freelance strategy and fundraising and stuff like that in the charity sector and one day I had a really great idea and I looked up from my desk as I would always do to see who was going to help me with it and realised that because I was freelance, I was on my own and didn’t have a team and didn’t have all these people that could help me achieve stuff. I realised in that moment that the first part of my career was basically me having ideas, getting lots of other people to do most of the work and then calling it leadership and getting away with it for quite a long time, and realised that actually my own skills around being a completer finisher, around being focused on particular tasks were just not that great.

So, I set about changing me, that was really the start of the ninja journey and my natural style is quite flaky, strategic, big picture, so if I can develop the skills to make myself a completer finisher and someone who can be down in the detail and really get clarity around everything I’m doing, then I kind of felt, well if I can do that for me, I can do that for anybody else and that was really where the idea for Think Productive, my business, really came from.

Maria:

But volunteering is also a challenging role and it’s not something people think about doing. How did you get into volunteering? What brought you that? Was that a family thing?

Graham Allcott:

Well yes and no. It’s funny, I did a podcast interview a few weeks ago and it was all about childhood and it was quite interesting to make some of the linkages. I grew up with a background where my parents were heavily involved in different churches and stuff like that, and I think you always have that kind of influence, don’t you, from your family. I was lucky that my family gave me really good morals and very high ethical values. But no, volunteering really was something I got into at university. I’d been working for a year before that, for HSBC, doing a year out and being a supervisor in one of their data centres, basically and then having gone from full time work to being a student, I just felt really guilty that I had 12 hours a week and I was just like, “What am I doing with my time?”

So, I ended up alongside my studies doing a lot of volunteering and ended up running some kids’ camps for eight to 11-year-old kids around Birmingham, taking them out to Wales and beaches and places they’d never been. It was really through doing lots of volunteering as a student that I decided that that was something I wanted to promote in my work, so then I fell into jobs that were around charities and volunteering.

Maria:

Fantastic, that’s really brilliant. You also are involved with the charity Centrepoint. For anybody that doesn’t know what that is, what does Centrepoint do?

Graham Allcott:

So Centrepoint is the UK’s largest youth homelessness charity. Based in London but also with a big presence in Manchester and Sunderland and various other cities and it’s really about giving a home and a job to young people who, for a variety of different reasons, have found themselves homeless, either sleeping on the streets, or sofa-surfing, sleeping on buses, all these kind of different things. It’s a problem that is, sadly getting a lot worse at the current time, so there’s a huge need for the work that Centrepoint does. I’ve been part of their board for about nine years and now, just a supporter from the side lines really but I just think it’s an amazing charity and something that I’ve just had just a huge privilege to be involved with at such a high level.

Maria:

Brilliant, brilliant. So for productivity, you said began because you had to do the whole thing all by yourself-

Graham Allcott:

Yes.

Maria:

You had to teach yourself to be much more productive and much more organised. Where did you start to learn about it? How did you teach yourself?

Graham Allcott:

Well my thing was just reading every single book and blog that I could come up with, this is probably back in 2007/2008 so it’s kind of the early days of blogs, and lots of stuff on the internet and lots of different books, and there were a few books that really resonated with me. ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ was a big book for me, David Allen, ‘Getting Things Done’, was a big book for me, some of Seth Godin’s work and some of Bernard Mans’ work and lots of people like that. What I started to do really was to take different bits of all these different approaches and say, “What’s working for me, what’s not?” and just use myself as a bit of a laboratory. In the end, I just came up with a framework and a system that seemed to work for me, that seemed to cut away some of the stuff that was a little bit too complicated, I thought, from some of those other books, and just start to create a system the really works for me.

Maria:

It’s interesting actually, because there’s lots of different views about work life balance out there. There’s people saying that you shouldn’t work weekends and then there’s people like Gary Vee who has a great following that’s saying you should be up at 5 o’clock in the morning and work 18 hour days and effort, effort, effort. What’s your take on work life balance?

Graham Allcott:

Well I have a kind of love/hate relationship with Gary Vee. I love his philosophies on many things, I find his view on hustle, as he often terms it, just deeply disturbing and actually quite dangerous. He, to be fair to him, in interviews has said things along the lines of, “I have the energy to do this, I know that most other people don’t, so they shouldn’t try, this is just what works for me.” But people just take it too literally.

So I don’t work weekends, I work a four day week, I work Monday to Thursday, I do essentially 37 and a half hours, a full week but basically Monday to Thursday and that’s due to me having childcare and various other things going on as well. But I have a three day weekend and actually my company does too. So, Think Productive does a four-day week and what people really love about that is that you know you have a weekend, which is a couple of days of relaxation, but usually, in a two-day weekend, you’ve also got work to do, you’ve got laundry and you’ve got house admin and mortgage/re-mortgage forms to fill in and all these things we have to do in life. Life admin. So what often happens is, with our team, they tend to do that stuff on the Friday and the still have two days off and I think a three day weekend feels infinitely bigger and more expansive than a two day one.

There’s lots of studies that show that actually it’s more productive to work four days, even cutting down the hours as well, which we don’t do. We basically still work the same hours but actually cutting down the hours, you can actually get more done in a shorter amount of time as well.

Maria:

Did you find that hard to implement though because there are always clients who want things on a Friday and are they happy to wait till the Monday?

Graham Allcott:

Well it doesn’t affect clients. We have a system where the four day week is basically, everybody does one Friday in four and that’s what makes it much more easy and palatable to do five days in four. So there’s basically always someone on a phone on a Friday. When we implemented it, it kind of came through a discussion between myself and some of the other staff members and one of the things that I said as the business owner, and at the time, the leader of the business, I said, “There are some lines that we can’t cross here. One of them is, it doesn’t affect clients, it doesn’t affect our front line service, if people want workshops on a Friday, that still happens.” All these things have to be set as non-negotiables first and then we see how we can fit that in. We’ve managed to make that work really well and do you know what there’s some amazing positive so it as well.

So I think it really helps to define a culture within Think Productive that’s very focused on work life balance and on emotional intelligence and avoiding burnout and all those kind of things. I also thinks it probably really helps with retention. I think it would be quite difficult to go from having a three day weekend back to having a two, so it really helps us to keep good people and keep people motivated as well.

Maria:

People listening to this podcast won’t see this but we’re doing this on a video call and I can see how young and rested and well you look. So obviously it’s working.

Graham Allcott:

Oh that’s nice because I’ve just been up really early with my son who was being a bit of a rotter, so that’s good to hear that sort of thing.

Maria:

Well done. So going back to the book. I read your book, ‘How To Be A Productivity Ninja’, over three years ago now and I was trying to find my copy because I thought, I’m going to ask you some questions from the book and somebody has pinched it. In fact, we had a load of copies, we’ve sent them all out to clients, but what’s brilliant about your book, I remember the stuff, I’ve been using the stuff, I read it a long time ago, I read it over a Christmas holiday in fact because I was trying to get organised because I wanted to go into January with new systems.

Graham Allcott:

Cool.

Maria:

So, I actually don’t need to go and find the book because I can tell you what worked for me and I’d like you to share some of the things. So, the first thing I learned which was a huge shock, I’ve been trying all my life to manage my time and that was the wrong thing to be managing and when I read that in your book and thought, “Oh goodness”. Can you share what we should be managing rather than our time?

Graham Allcott:

Yes, so don’t manage time, manage attention. Attention is a much more precious resource than time and so in an average day, you’ll have two to three hours of what I call proactive attention. So the time in your day when you’re most switched on, you’re most able to do the most difficult work that’s on your plate. And really the trick to all this is how you manage that two to three hours. The problem for most people is that, when they’ve done studies of this, a lot more people are morning people than evening people, how do you tend to spend your mornings? Either catching up on email, or in someone’s boring meeting, or doing stuff where your time is not your own to be autonomous. This tends to be the way a lot of people’s mornings go. So actually, it’s quite difficult to defend ruthlessly that two to three hours, because it tends to be times when everyone else is having demands on your time. But if you do that, then what I say is what happens in the rest of your day will look after itself.

If you’re spending the time in those two to three hours really focused on the most difficult thing you need to work on, the most strategic, the most intellectually challenging thing that you need to do, then actually the rest of your day, the emails will look after themselves, the other meetings will take place, everything else will be fine. It’s often the big stuff that can sit on your to do list and move from one day to the next, to the next, to the next. That’s the stuff that really needs the focus and the reason that stuff moves down the to do list day to day is because it’s difficult and because you really need to apply the most quality attention you have to be able to get that stuff done.

Maria:

Yes, I know, brilliant. That really changed my way of thinking. The other thing that you talk about is the concept of a second brain. Now I’ve got to that age in my life where I forget stuff. In fact, if anybody meets me in a networking event and I go blank and I’ve known you for years and I look like a rabbit in the headlights, please introduce yourselves because my brain just stops. So could you share with us what a second brain is?

Graham Allcott:

Oh man, that was also me from the age of about 19, I think, I don’t know what happened in my brain but it all went and I can bump into people in the street and they’re like, “Graham? We’ve met before.” And I’m like, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” There’s a condition isn’t there where you don’t remember faces, I think I might have it. So yes, the concept of second brain is basically saying if you try and manage all of the stuff that you’re working on, so all of the different projects and actions and all this kind of stuff, if you try and manage it all in your head then you’re going to get lost very, very quickly. We all know that our short-term memory is not that great, and if you don’t believe me, remember the times when you played that game, “I went to the shops and I bought … ” someone says a thing, someone says another thing, you can’t get past five or six things in that game. So what that means is we know our short term memory is not great at trying to retain information and the best use of our brain really is all the other stuff so strategic decision making, intuitive thinking, prioritising, our brain’s really good at looking at all that complexity and then making really good choices, generally speaking. So managing all of those projects and actions in the second brain frees up your brain for the creativity, the strategy, all the other stuff that it’s really good at and the second brain is something that you learn to trust.

So, having a really good system of projects and actions and also having those actions laid out within your second brain based on the level of attention you need, so having the proactive attention, the hard stuff, in one little list so that when you have that time, that’s the only stuff you see. When you’re out and about, here’s the five things I can do when I’m nearby some shops, or whatever. Having all your calls in the same place. Once you start to trust that as a system that’s going to really work for you, then you don’t need to keep any of that stuff in your head, which just frees you up, it’s an incredibly freeing place to be, to be able to just capture a new idea, put it in your second brain and you don’t need to think about it for the rest of the day and it gives you focus and energy on the work you do.

Maria:

Yes, that was really powerful too and the other thing that revolutionised my life was your email zero policy. Now I have to confess, I can’t do it every day. I tend to do it once a week, I haven’t managed to get it down to every day and in fact, it’s a whole workshop, I think you could talk about it for an entire day so I’m not going to ask you to tell us how to get our emails down to zero literally in one answer, but maybe give us one tip on how to manage a raging email inbox?

Graham Allcott:

Well I was just going to say one thing about that, you said you have to “confess” that you only get it down once a week, I don’t know that that’s actually a confession.

Maria:

Is it not?

Graham Allcott:

What is zero ultimately? I mean, zero doesn’t really matter, so a lot of people get this confused with inbox zero that it’s somehow about, “I’ve got to get to the end, yes, tick.” And of course there will always be more emails coming through. It’s much more about saying, “I’m on top of the decisions that I need to make about all this different emails and I know there’s nothing buried on page four or page five, or further down.”

So it’s much more about just saying, “Do I have a good handle on this?” If through the course of the week you know that nothing’s going to slip between the cracks, then it’s actually fine. If you get six emails a month, do it monthly, right? It’s fine, unless all of those six emails might well be the million dollar deal kind of emails and then you’re checking it every hour, or every minute, or whatever. For me, it’s again about the relationship we have with information and how we make sense of how that information affects everything else that we’re working on. So for me, once you’ve got a really good sense of that, then the system allows you to be really in control. So, for me, probably every two days, I’ll get back to inbox zero, and then it just gives you that really good sense of calm around what I’m doing.

I’d say anybody listening to this with 5,000 emails just thinking, “Well how on earth do I do that?” When we look at the email software, if you open up an email in Microsoft Outlook or Google, and our eyes read left to right. So the first thing you’ll see on the left hand side is usually the big button that says, “Reply.” So email is kind of geared and our brains are kind of geared that everything needs a response. If you flip that round completely and say, “Actually what I’m doing here is there’s a whole heap of rubbish and I’m panning for gold within that.” There’ll be three out of those 100 that really matter. If you flip it round that way, if you’ve got 5,000 emails, the very first thing you can do is anything older than three months, either chuck it in a folder, or press Delete and just Control A Select, or get rid of all that stuff.

Once you start to think of it in that way, you don’t have 5,000 emails and a 5,000 email problem. You have a two month problem, or a one month problem, or just the stuff that’s come in recently kind of problem. So once you start to see it in that way, then you can pan for the gold there with the stuff that probably still does matter and still does have something that needs doing with it.

Maria:

I like that, looking for the gold, I like that. I’ve written that down because that will help me again every week when I’m doing that. So you’re talking about lots of emails, you’re talking about lots of noise, there’s so much information which, as you said, there’s so many distractions, now there’s social media which there never used to be. I think it makes it really hard for you to focus, so is there any advice on focusing?

Graham Allcott:

That’s a massive question.

Maria:

I know.

Graham Allcott:

I think there’s so many different ways of focusing. I think one thing that really matters is we need to think about our thinking. Often, it’s seen that thinking at work is some kind of luxury that we’ll get to in two weeks’ time. Actually, we’re in a stage now where as knowledge workers, thinking is our work. So the creativity, the strategy, all of that really high value thinking that we do as humans, that’s the stuff that really matters because ultimately, a lot of the other stuff can get replaced by machines and robots and everything else and ultimately, the stuff where you really add the value is the stuff where you’re being creative or you’re making decisions, you’re solving problems, all those kind of things.

So giving ourselves the space for thinking is absolutely essential. It should never be seen as a luxury. What that then means in terms of the practicalities deep down in the weeds of, “I have my phone, it has Facebook on it, it has Twitter on it,” and all those kinds of things, is you need to really recognise that willpower is completely overrated. If you’re not thinking about the fact that there’s 1,000 people sat in Silicon Valley whose entire job is to bring you back to your phone as often as possible and to make it as addictive as possible, then you’re going to lose, sorry.

I use an app called QualityTime at the moment which basically turns off certain apps on my phone and makes them inaccessible for certain hours of the day. So the time when I have that proactive attention, I cannot access Twitter, I can’t get Google Chrome on my phone, I can see WhatsApp if I go into it and want to message somebody else, but I don’t see the notifications coming in, I don’t have all the beeps and noises and all that kind of stuff. So it basically screens out a lot of the noise. Once you get into a sort of mode, a way of working where you say, “All those things are really addictive, I don’t trust myself because willpower’s overrated,” then you can get some strategies in place to deal with that.

And you can use this software, you can use this across desktop PCs and everything else. There’s an app called Freedom which does very similar things on a desktop, so it will just cut off the internet at certain times. I’ve had times, particularly when I’m on a writing deadline, where I’ll literally turn the Wi-Fi off at source, at the wall. Have it on a time switch basically, so for certain hours of the day, it’s just not accessible.

So, recognising that we’re going to lack focus and we are going to be interrupted, I think you can either take that as something that you can control and take hold of it and deal with it, or you can play the victim and say, “Oh, I’m in an open plan office,” and, “Oh, Facebook”. Well you have choices over most of those things and actually when I coach people, often the open plan offices is a big thing that comes up as, “I don’t have a choice around that,” and I say, “Will anyone mind if you go and sit in a coffee shop round the corner for an hour while you do your thinking and prioritisation and all that kind of stuff? Can you take your laptop and sit in a little cupboard and do your emails in there?” There are ways of doing this where you can make yourself in the ninja terms, stealth and camouflage, deliberately unavailable in order to really do that quality thinking and create that space.

Maria:

No, it’s fantastic advice and you’re absolutely right. I was going to ask you about open plan offices, so thank you for that. What about virtual teams though? We have virtual teams, so what will happen is somebody will come, have a problem, and their priority is obviously to do their work and they will interrupt me or interrupt another member of the team, so that can be quite difficult then to say, “Do not disturb, don’t contact me because I’m in my two-and-a-half-hour zone.” I suppose you’d have to be a little bit flexible to do that?

Graham Allcott:

Yes, and I think also that’s about give and take, isn’t it? So I think what’s important here is within the team, bringing those full conversations to the surface. So rather than the conversation just being a micro one about you saying, “I’m in my two and a half hour zone, don’t touch me,” kind of thing, actually having a team conversation about when collectively do we have the best attention? When individually do we have the best attention? How do we deal with that? Which communication channels are we using? So, for example, within Think Productive, Think Productive does a lot of its work virtually. So, we have a bunch of what we call productivity ninjas who are around the country doing the workshops, we have members of our team who used to live in Brighton and have now moved away to London and Manchester and different places, so we do a lot of our work on Slack. I am not on Slack, you can’t get me on Slack and that’s because my main job in the Think Productive these days is writing and Slack is just not conducive to writing, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get hold of me, I’m still on WhatsApp, I’m still on the phone and people still know that if there’s something that’s really urgent, they can call me or they can email me or whatever, depending on how quickly they need a response, there are ways to reach me.

But that’s my decision, but also couched in what do the team need from me? I think you can have these conversations and they are either going to happen when people are stressed because it’s like, “I’m defending my sanctuary right now,” or you can bring them to the table where no one’s stressed and have them in a group environment and have it on a kind of macro level rather than a micro level. I just think, people are just not having those kind of conversations often enough, particularly when tech changes and culture changes. I think when we’ve been into organisations and done that kind of work with people, you really see the benefits of, “Oh, I don’t need to reply to an email instantly? I can wait an hour to get back to a client?” These expectations that are unsaid and built on assumptions often end up not being true anyway.

Maria:

Brilliant, I’ve written so many notes during this and I’m going to go back and listen again and write more notes, absolutely fantastic. So, you live in Brighton, you mentioned before.

Graham Allcott:

Yes.

Maria:

You are the productivity ninja; how does a productivity ninja spend his spare time?

Graham Allcott:

Ah, ok. So, I have a little boy who is four and a half. He also has autism, so I spend a lot of my time preparing for things that we’re going to do. So this weekend, we’re actually going to stay at a friend of ours, we’re going to go camping in her back garden, basically as rehearsal to go camping at WOMAD Festival which is in about three or four weeks’ time. We did WOMAD Festival last year and we did all the preparation again last year, but he just needs that kind of extra bit. So there’s a lot of rehearsing and a lot of hanging out with small children and that kind of thing.

My other big obsessions are sports. For my sins, I’m a big Aston Villa fan. It’s been pretty miserable over the last few years, but I still have a season ticket there and get there regularly. My other big love is baseball so if I’ve got spare time where I can get away, I will generally fly to Toronto and then follow the Toronto Blue Jays around. So I’ll go to Toronto and then the team goes off to Kansas and I’ll go to Kansas and then they go to New York, I go to New York and just follow them around for 10 days basically and then come home. They play basically every day, baseball is 162 games a year, so in a 10 day trip I’ll generally see nine games.

Maria:

How did you get into baseball? That’s an interesting one.

Graham Allcott:

So geeky, eh? I got into it because Think Productive had an office in Calgary in Canada and my publisher was in Toronto. So I’d often come over to Toronto, stay over there and then go to Calgary. In Toronto, I didn’t know anyone, so I had really nothing to do and I just thought, “I’ll go and watch baseball, it’s on, great.” The first couple of times I went, I didn’t really love it, I didn’t really understand it. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and everything and then one day I sat next to a guy from KPMG and he spent the whole night, really generously explaining all the rules, all the tactics. It’s a huge intellectual game, there’s so much going on in terms of the tactics and strategies of baseball, both from a really micro level like, this one pitcher and this one hitter, right through to what they’re going to do in five years’ time. You kind of track the whole strategy, it’s really very engaging.

So he explained all this stuff to me and I was just like, “Wow, this is so cool,” and I’ve just been obsessed ever since. I came back to England and you can download an app where you can watch all the games live. Some of them are on in the evenings here, which is fine. Some of them are like one o’clock in the morning, I try and avoid those ones if I can, but if it’s a big game, I’ll stay up late.

Maria:

Brilliant, that sounds fantastic. So finally, you are also a podcast host, you’ve been doing it a big longer than me, so congratulations.

Graham Allcott:

Yes.

Maria:

So, tell us a little bit about your podcast and why you haven’t invited me to be a guest?

Graham Allcott:

Because I can’t pin your diary down Maria, that’s the thing. I looked at our Skype message which said, “I’m just adding you on Skype ready for our interview,” and it was February, we’re now recording this in June, so we have very difficult diaries. I definitely want to get you on the podcast-

Maria:

Thank you, that’s put me on the spot, hasn’t it?

Graham Allcott:

And actually part of the reason, logistically, I don’t do that many podcasts is I do them all face to face. They’re all about an hour, sometimes even an hour and a half long and they’re very in depth, it’s a whole afternoon, a whole travel trip and that kind of thing. The basic idea is, it’s called Beyond Busy and it’s really a podcast that explores the intersections and the tensions between the topics of productivity, work life balance, and then how people define happiness, success and basically the idea of living a good life and what’s important to people. The reason I wanted to explore that, I think there’s a book in there somewhere and I thought if I started doing a podcast and talking about these topics, it would basically become research for the book. So, the idea with the podcast at the beginning was that the podcast would not only have these interviews, but also track the progress of me writing the book.

The writing of the book’s been really slow, so I’ve ended up actually putting that book on hold and I’m doing a couple of other books at the moment, I’m going to come back to that book, but it’s like a slow cooker. You know, slow cooking a casserole over four years or something. So, the idea is just to explore these tensions and I think it’s really interesting where people really solve productivity and they go, “Yes, I’m being really productive,” and what they don’t realise, or sometimes do realise is they’re burning out, or their work life balance has become appalling to make that happen.

You talked about Gary Vee before, I’d imagine he’s hugely productive, I don’t know how much time he’ll see his kids and how many hours he sleeps and various other things like that. So I think productivity, work life balance, and on the other side of it, happiness and success, I think I’m really interested in what motivates people, is a great work life balance and productivity enough? Do people really get their sense of self more from being productive than from, say, their family life or the other way round? I just find that human motivation piece just really fascinating. I’ve interviewed everyone from Olympic gold medallists to CEOs to founders, to professional clowns, comedians, all these different people. Probably the only safe conclusion I’ve drawn from all the hours of interviews I’ve done is humans are weird. Humans are so weird and I think once you recognise that and once you start to see that actually there’s so much complexity and so many of us are carrying stories from childhood and from things that we were taught at school and we thought that that was the truth and all of these kind of things. I think that really adds to what makes it a fascinating topic.

There is a book in there somewhere, well there better be because I’m on a deadline in two years’ time for it. I’ve signed a deal, but at the moment I’m still exploring the topics and working out where I sit within it as well. It feels like a daunting one because in some ways, it’s, “Graham, write a book about the meaning of life,” isn’t it, really? But I think what’s interesting is you can start to also frame that not only just on what do I think about it, but I’ve also got these hundreds of people that I’ve interviewed, what do they think about it too?

Maria:

I think there is a book in there, I think it’s a very productive way of using your time on your podcast, that you’re also going to create a book and I agree with you, we’re all a bit weird. Thank you so much, Graham.

Graham Allcott:

Thank you, it’s been a pleasure

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