It’s not how hard you work – 3 essential tips for productivity.

A few months ago I was sitting in my garage, frustrated. It seems like every time I had to get ready for a fishing trip, I would have to go through dozens of boxes looking for gear. And I was always forgetting something important. Why is this so painful?, I thought, rummaging through another unlabeled box of mismatched junk, hoping not to end up with a rusty #4 hook embedded in the ball of my thumb.

It all came to a head on a river rafting trip last August. It’s OK, I told my friends at the launch, a raft is never full. But after we loaded everything on, I felt much less smug about things. The gear and boxes were piled up so that it teetered over my head at the back of the raft, nearly tipping it over, and the sides of the boat were barely above water. This was on a stretch of river that was known for having some truly frightening rapids, and as we gingerly eased ourselves into the raft, a small crowd gathered to watch the show. No one said anything as we paddled the wallowing boat out to midriver, and I remember one older gentleman taking off his hat. It was one of those trips where the best you can say at the end is, “Well, we survived.” The tipping point for me was when a family of four, with a dog, came by with one quarter the gear we had – floating high and dry while we barely stayed afloat. The father looks us over a little and kind of cocks his hat, and asked us when the garage sale was.

Getting home I refused to put any of the boxes back until I had gone through everything and separated out the essentials, and moved everything else out to Goodwill. Suddenly what was six boxes of miscellaneous and jumbled junk became one box. Hmmm, I thought. That’s interesting. Then I took my fly boxes – a mishmash of fur, hackles and hooks – and laid them out in order, as you see below, and took out anything that I’d bought on a whim that would never see a fish. Suddenly, my boat was a lot lighter –and I was spending a lot less time rummaging through gear and fly boxes every trip.


My flies all tied up and ready for a fun day on the river.

By not taking the time out to do a little tidying up and reorganizing, I was costing myself valuable time. I’ve found the same thing to be true at work. Time is a diminishing resource for most of us. For me to keep my head above water at work, I would need to learn how to focus on the important things and let the rest of the clutter slide. Below are three tips that I’ve used over the past six months that has dramatically increased my happiness and reduced stress. I hope you find it of value!

Tip #1 – Taming The Savage Inbox

How many times have you gotten into work excited – today is going to be a great day, I’ve got all these cool things to do – and decide, while your coffee is brewing, well, I guess I’d better check my email – and the next thing you know, it’s 10 a.m. and your daily slog of meetings is beginning, and you haven’t really gotten anything done? The biggest tyrant of our time by far – besides runaway meetings – is email, by a mile. If you’re not careful, you’ll be sucked into a reactive cycle of compulsively checking your email almost constantly. Your company is paying you to be productive – and responding to emails within minutes is NOT adding business value. With very few exceptions, emails can and should wait on the back burner so you can address them in a batch. Our goal should never be too have a “clean” inbox at the end of each day – but to as efficiently as possible pick out the emails that are truly important from the pack and knock them out quickly without allowing it to dominate your workday.

So do yourself a favor. Only check email the afternoon, never the morning – and turn off your email alerts. Set expectations with your customers and close partners that your SLA for emails is within one business day, and that for urgent issues they should call you. And take the time to identify that one special thing that you want to get done each day in advance – and don’t check your email until it’s done, finished, kaput. This one tip alone will quadruple your productivity and your work satisfaction level – and make you feel like the master, not the slave, of your own time.

Tip #2 – You Come First

As a team lead I was always running around every day, harried, stressed. I would look at some of my developers at the company gym, working out or hitting the treadmill, and think bitterly – I wish I had time for that. Over time though I noticed something – the developers who took the time out every day, usually in the morning, to exercise, go on a walk, have a healthy breakfast – they were consistently the top performers. Somehow, by putting themselves first and ignoring all the urgent deadlines and project pressures we had as a team, they were able to get more done than others like myself, slaving away at a hot keyboard for 10-12 hour days. So, I started to walk in the mornings, and took a few minutes to make a good healthy breakfast instead of that Egg McMuffin and a coffee to go. Guess what? I was happier – and midway through the walk I would often get clarity on how to solve a problem that was nagging me at work. Difficult things suddenly became easy. I lost weight and felt happy and healthier – and I got more done.

In the end you have to remember that, even for those lucky few of us that work for great companies – we may love our jobs, but they don’t love us. In the end work is a large but ultimately rather meaningless part of our life. It has to be kept in perspective. Put yourself first with a great morning ritual – a walk through a wooded area, a nice healthy breakfast and a shower, a few minutes to meditate or read. You’ll be amazed at how much more you get done when you treat yourself with compassion.

Tip #3 – Reflection

One of the best things I liked about Scrum and Agile techniques as a team lead is the opportunity to reflect a little. “What did we get done? What will we shoot for next? What could be improved?” We would write these up and email it to the team and partners – and I can’t even tell you how many mistakes this prevented me from repeating, and how much more on-target our development activities became.

To stay on course, first thing in the morning write down the three most important things that you want to do today. If it helps, put them on sticky notes on a whiteboard. (It always gives me a nifty little feeling of satisfaction when I rip one of them off the board and crumple it up.) In the evening, cover in a journal the three reflection points I mentioned above – “What did I get done today? What will I do tomorrow? What could have gone better?” I usually put this as a reminder in Outlook for me, as – if I don’t block out time for this meditation – it often gets crowded out. Spending a few minutes reflecting really helps me keep my focus on the important things that can slip away with the chaos of each workday.

Finishing Up

Shakespeare said:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”


For too many of us, sometimes our life becomes a little like that. There is a ticket out of that very frustrating and unproductive cycle though. You don’t have to do all of the suggestions above at once. Try one or two for a week or two – and if it works, keep it up. For all of us though, learning how to control interruptions like email, building a healthy morning routine, and spending a few minutes reflecting will help you feel more in control of your life – and perform better when it counts.


Lifehacks and my State of the Union address :-)

We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the important task rarely must be done today or even this week.  … But the urgent tasks call for instant action—endless demands pressure every hour and day. … The momentary appeal of these tasks seems irresistible and important, and they devour our energy. But in the light of time’s perspective their deceptive prominence fades; with a sense of loss we recall the important task pushed aside.  We realize we’ve become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent. -Charles Hummel

So as some of you know I’ve been looking more into productivity tooling and lifehacks since shortly after I started this new job back in July 2014. Microsoft as a whole is such a vast company – and there’s such a torrent of information – that quite a few very bright people struggle to keep up. I also would like NOT to be up till ten at night, getting no exercise, and not really making a lot of progress on real work. You know the saying “Some things are urgent, and some things are important – but not everything that’s urgent is important, and not everything that’s important is urgent.” I saw a lot of that in previous work – I would dump my all into a career, or a company – and my family and personal health would suffer.

So I tried the following things:

  • Don’t check email in the morning. I set “email block” meetings in Outlook from 12-1, and 4-5 daily. In the other times, turn off Outlook.
  • Eat that frog. Plan 2-3 most important (not urgent) actions on calendar and get it done.
  • Reflection. End of day – what did I do today? What will I focus on tomorrow? What could be improved?
  • Time management. Pomodoro (50 minute working cycle / 20 minute break. P.s. sitting all day is TERRIBLE for your health, even if you work out)
  • Personal fitness. Paleo diet and Crossfit mostly. I flirted with vegetarianism briefly, and even went off coffee for a month (otherwise known as the WORST MONTH OF MY LIFE)

Here’s what worked:

  • Crossfit is terrific, and so is Paleo. Changing up my diet and focusing on working out and strength training – hard as it was – was a game changer for me. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been and am losing weight, at long last. I feel like a hero around my girls, which is worth quite a bit.
  • Doing a technology detox (see the pix below) was actually a good exercise. We went without TV for a month, and I uninstalled a lot of social media apps off my phone. Guess what? Life gets better after FaceBook.
  • Not checking email in the morning made a HUGE difference in making me less reactive. If you try only one thing from this post – DO THIS.

Here’s what didn’t work:

  • I didn’t really focus on keeping Important things foremost. Too many times the more important things slipped behind the urgent issues of the day.
  • Pomodoro was NOT GREAT for me. I am thinking of retrying it in the future, but since much of my calendar is meeting driven not heads-down programming – it just didn’t apply.

Here’s my goals for the future:

  • I’m convinced that buying out the time for myself and my family first – esp with health-related things like exercise and diet – is vital for me to be really productive. So I’m going to push ahead with this. Seven days successfully on an improved diet and the odds are you’ll stick with it – yet most people THINK they lack the self-control to make this change, and so they drop out on day 4 or 5. I have all kinds of events coming up and free lunches – so saying no to this is hard – but going alcohol-free and sticking to Paleo is really good for me in all areas of life.
  • I will add to my daily diary routine more of a reflection on life and the big picture.


One last picture again. This really sums it up.

Checking in on productivity…

Enjoyed this article here on how to best be effective at work. 5 simple rules:

  1. To-do lists are evil. Schedule everything.
  2. Assume you’re going home at 5:30, then plan your day backwards.
  3. Make a plan for the entire week.
  4. Do very few things, but be awesome at them.
  5. Do less shallow work — focus on the deep stuff.

On my part, my data diet was a kinda-success. Today for example I horsed around for a few minutes (checking up on the Simpsons, Slate, “news” that really isn’t, etc) – which really stretched into nearly 90 minutes. But that’s the exception and I’m determined not to make it a habit. I do have a simple plan for today and I will kick it – just 2 important things I’ll keep a focus on until it’s done. Working out and a new diet (in September I didn’t even have coffee!) has also been a big boost to my energy level.

That’s it for now. Got to get back to work!