World-Changing Books: How to be a Productivity Ninja

World-Changing Books: How to be a Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott (2014, Icon Books)

I first came across this book as a Kindle Daily Deal and fell in love with the little ninja character on the front. I bought it thinking I might pick up a couple of useful tips – reading productivity books is a great way of procrastinating, right? 

Then I read this, and realized that this book was written just for me:

‘I am not writing this book because I’m some kind of time management guru. I’m not one of those naturally organised people. In fact, my natural style of work is quite the opposite: flaky, ideas based, more comfortable at the strategic level than the doing level, allergic to detail, thought processes ungrounded in reality, instinctive, crazy-making, ridiculously unrealistic about what’s achievable in any given time period, cutting things fine. All of these characteristics are in their own way, amongst what you could call my strengths and have made me successful in things I’ve done. They’re part of who I am. I play to these strengths and also recognise them as the crippling weaknesses that they are, too.’ 

It’s always a good start when you identify so completely with an author… 

Who’s it by?

Graham Allcott is a self-confessed late comer to the productivity game. It was something he was really bad at, so he put some time and energy into getting really, really good at it. Now he runs Think Productive, a training business that teaches his techniques to workplaces all around the globe. 

Who’s it for? 

Anybody who’s not working at peak effectiveness, and who cares about changing that. 

What’s the key message?

Today productivity is no longer about time managmenet, but attention managment, and we can learn strategies to protect and focus our attention so we get the stuff we care about done.

How does it change the world?

This is above all a very practical, pragmatic book. It recognises that there will never be a time when everything gets done, just as there will never be a day when we can say we have this productivity thing nailed forever. And the book is full of strategies for putting in place the attitude, systems and processes to support the effective direction of your attention to the things that matter. It draws unapologetically from the best of the rich tradition of time management and productivity writing, particularly David Allen’s Get it Done, but I was grateful for the way it focused on simple, actionable tactics (such as scheduling meetings before lunch so they’re more likely to end on time) rather than demanding a full-blown this-way-and-no-other system. 

Ninja calmThe humour helps too – often self-help books can feel preachy, but the tongue-in-cheek ninja theme keeps this engaging and fun. The illustrations are a particular joy (see below for more on how these came about!), showing the power of the right image in grabbing and holding attention.   

I found this book pretty world-changing for me in terms of my own business – it would be fascinating to know how many more businesses, social projects, innovations and initiatives have benefited from the strategies here, and how many people are happier and healthier as a result of achieving ninja-hood.

What’s interesting about it from a writer’s perspective? 

  • The book is structured around the central model of Graham’s productivity methodology, CORD (Capture and Collect, Organize, Review and Do), so there’s a very clear link back into the business and the workshops run by Think Productive. This is an area I was partiuclarly keen to ask Graham about, and I was fascinated (though not at all surprised) to hear about the virtuous circle effect he’s experienced. 
  • One particularly interesting thing about this book, which I didn’t realize until I spoke to Graham at a conference a few weeks ago, is that it has danced back and forth across the increasingly blurred lines of traditional publishing and self-publishing: originally commissioned by a traditional publisher, Graham then decided to publish himself to retain control, after which it was bought and published traditionally by Icon Books, an independent publisher perhaps wiling to be more flexible than some of their bigger counterparts, and with a real understanding that if the book supports the business, that’s good for everyone. 

More from Graham himself…

Which came first, the business or the book?

The business came first. I fell into teaching productivity by firstly being really bad at it and then learning to be good at it. I read loads of books and blogs and listened to podcasts and read up on the psychology of it and all that sort of thing. Then what happened was I became so excited that I’d solved it. It was such a revelation to me that I was talking to everyone about it, and everyone kept saying, “Oh, come and tell me about this more. Come and run a workshop,” so I fell into running workshops about it. Then, I had this light bulb moment of thinking, “Oh, it feels like everybody needs this.” I thought I was the last person to crack this in the world, and then it turns out I was one of the only people who’d cracked it in the world. That was Think Productive, the business launched officially in early 2009.

I had the book on my to-do list from about 2011 and was reviewing that every week and realizing I wasn’t getting very far with writing a book because I was running a business, and the business was expanding. Every week, I would come back and review it and think, “Well, I’m not getting very far with this. What needs to change?” One week I realized it was more than just a question of needing some time and mental space. It was actually more about needing physical space and attention space to be able to write.

I came up with a way, actually just a lot of the stuff from Michael Gerber’s book, The E-Myth, to bring someone else into the business to run the business. Elena, who’s now my COO, ran the business while I went off to a beach hut in Sri Lanka, a little beach hut, no wifi. I just had a month of complete solitude, and that’s where the book came from. That was the end of 2011. I launched it as a self-published book in summer 2012, I had no idea that July was about the worst time I could have launched a book, but you live and learn. Then it was picked up by Icon Books, who put it out in January 2014.

Tell me a little bit more about how that happened.

Actually Icon approached me through the business to write another book for them, which was Introducing Productivity (part of their Introducing series). I think they found me through Googling ‘Time management’, my business comes up pretty much top for that.

I was talking to the commissioning editor, and basically, at the end of the phone call when she said “Yeah, you should do this book for us,” I said, “Well, you should probably know a little bit more about me and my background so that you can pitch me to your bosses. I run this business and I’ve been talking to other businesses about productivity for a few years. I’ve put out my own book. It’s called How to Be a Productivity Ninja and it’s self-published.” As I said those words, the line went dead then she said, “We might want to buy that.” That was it.

I think what was very beneficial for me at that stage was it was an existing book. I’d proved that it could sell. I already had a front cover, and they could obviously see the potential of how to take that cover and make it better. I already a business, so they knew that there was a route to market. That’s a much easier proposition for a publisher, it mitigates the risk.

I’d actually had another publisher interested in the book before I did it as a self-published book, but I turned down the deal with them because they wanted far too much control over the whole process. Literally, the day before I got on the plane to Sri Lanka, I said, “I’m going to go off and write this book, and I’ll talk to you when I get back about whether this is something I do through you.” Then, I sat there writing the book, and I had this one particular thing I wanted to say. It was little bit on the edge and risky and I just remember thinking, “What will the publisher think about me writing this? Will they take that out?” It was at that moment, I thought, “Screw the publisher. I’m going to write the book for me. I’m going to write the book that I want to write.”

Self-publishing really gave me creative control and it allowed me to produce the thing that I wanted to produce. I think once you have a thing, it’s much easier for a publisher to evaluate whether they want it. Looking back, it was fortuitous and I feel like it was a really lucky route through the whole system. It was kind of scary at the time, because obviously, to do a book, you can do a book on your own for a few hundred pounds, for sure. It’s kind of how I work. I’m only going to do something if I do it really well, so I had already mentally prepared myself to spend a lot of money. It was probably about £10,000, in total. That’s ten grand I would have had in my business if I decided I didn’t want to do a book.

You have to be really committed to making it work. I meet so many people who say to me, “Oh, I’ve got an idea for a book.” I used to immediately want to help every single one of those people. These days, it’s like, “Okay, come back when you’ve got a book and we’ll talk.” I think there’s a massive difference between an aspiring writer and being an author. You have to be serious about it because it’s not an easy thing to do. Self-publishing is expensive and working with a publisher is time-consuming: you’ve got to be really serious about making it work.

Tell me more about how the business and the book work together now.

We’ve been selling the book to existing workshop clients, our main business is running workshops in companies, usually in groups of about fifteen. It’s very practical, how to improve your productivity kind of stuff, and most of the stuff we teach on those workshops is stuff that’s in the book, so it’s a really easy thing to then sell the book to clients as an add-on product.

From January, with the B-format coming out, we’ve decided to go one step further. We’re actually going to make it part of the package. Every time Think Productive runs a workshop, we will sell fifteen copies of the book. We’re doing multiples of those every week, so you can start to see why, from my publisher’s point of view, that’s a really nice piece of good news for them. It works that way round, but conversely, I now have a business in Australia because of the book; there was a guy who was getting on a plane to go to Singapore, was running a sales division of an Australian business, was stressed out and overworked and wanted a career change. He picked up the book in the airport, got on the plane, read the book between Australia and Singapore, got to Singapore and sent me an email saying “Your book’s brilliant.” On the way back, he sent me another email saying, “Can I run your business?” A year or so later, he quit his job and took on the license to run Think Productive in Australia.

That’s one of the wonderful things about a book, isn’t it? It can just reach people at any time, any place that you would never normally have met.

That’s the real thrill for me. Lots of people who buy the book in an airport, on a train, whatever, who are managers, and they read the book and they see it can work for them. They also think, “Now, I’ve just spent a few hours interacting with this stuff. I wonder if someone could help my team interact with this stuff for a few hours.” That’s obviously when they call us.

The thing that we do, training and basically working with a team of people in an organization, in some senses messing with their culture and their habits, it’s a thing that you can only really sell to people based on trust. If you’ve spent five or six hours reading somebody’s book… There’s a piece of psychology that says you earn trust in seven hours. I think a book gets you quite a long way to that seven-hour point of, “Okay, I’ve really interacted with this guy enough, now, just through his words and his ideas that I get enough of a sense of what this would be like.” Whereas, before that, what you’ve got is your nice brochure and the promises on your website, but no one’s ever met you. It’s very difficult for people to evaluate whether they’re going to spend a lot of money and also to take up their people’s time. Is it going to be worth it? Training is a big investment and finding new clients is the hardest thing for us. The book is fantastic for that.

I like the way you’ve got all the details about the business in the back of the book.

That was one of the things for me when I went from self-published to published – I was worried that I would lose control over that stuff: the little ninja figure on the front cover is part of our business branding and logo and everything. I actually got written into my contract with Icon that I had some control over that image always being on the cover. Then with the pages at the back, that was the other thing. I said “I really want to have those end papers in the back that talk about the business.” The sales director said “Yeah, we’ll put more of those in, if you want!” From his point of view, he gets that the sales of the book are going to be driven if my company grows and vice versa.

One of the really distinctive things about this book is the little ninja figure; tell me how those illustrations came about.

We worked with a graphic designer, through a program that the Design Council ran, actually, which was helping small businesses to incorporate design into the business. One of the first things he pitched was this little ninja character. We started playing around with this idea of the productivity ninja and he was the one that made that into a pictorial form. As soon as I saw that, I hired him. It was just like, “Yes!”

Actually the version that we now use is the very first one that he pitched. He just mocked it up. I said, “Don’t even change it. That’s what we’re using.” Then, the nine characteristics came later when we did the book: “Okay, give me something that looks like Inspector Gadget.” He would come up with these beautiful little ideas. It was really simple, really. If you meet the right designer, you just know.

Structuring is one of my hot topics because I’m one of those people that believe once you’ve nailed the structure of the book, you’re more than halfway to getting it done. Other people tell me that’s absolute rubbish and they just start writing and carry on until the end. Where are you on that continuum?

I’m a big fan of structure, too. With this book, the middle of the book was really easy, because the middle of the book was the four concepts we teach: capture and collect, organize, review, and do. That was four really obvious chapters straight away. Two of the other workshops we do, one is about e-mail and one is about meetings, so I just put those either side of the main ones. Then, really to top and tail it, what I wanted was something that really spoke to people’s human-ness around productivity a bit more. The idea of the nine characteristics felt like the best way of being a little bit subversive and counter-intuitive around certain ideas. I put procrastination and momentum at the end, because I wanted to leave people on a bit of a motivational high.

I love the end: “This is what I’m going to do, what about you?”

I think that, for me, is what maybe gives the book a slightly different attitude. A lot of the different books that are out there around time management and productivity, for me, it’s not enough to say, “Let’s do more things.” It’s important to recognize the inherent human-ness that’s necessary to do more things, and also why you do more things. Let’s change the world and let’s do the things that are really inspiring and important in the world. I think that’s a bit part of me and something that I felt was very important for the book to have, as well.

I’m all about changing the world! How did you go about adapting the content from the workshops into the book?

This was something I found quite easy and it was also why I took two or three years to write the book, I think. I’m always sceptical of someone who has all the answers when it comes to productivity. The answers come from talking to everybody else about productivity, either gleaning the best things that they do and starting to synthesize that, or listening to the human-ness and realizing how people fail and why and listening to the noises in the back of their heads, going, “But I can’t do this!”, the resistance. It took me three years of having that conversation four times a week… I couldn’t have started the business and on day one, going, “Here’s how you do productivity.” It just wouldn’t work. I think, for me, the important thing was having that conversation so often that I intuitively started to get inside people’s heads. A lot of people have said that about the book: “It’s like you’re reading my mind.” Well, not really. I’m just reading the minds of lots of other people who I had that conversation with three years ago and it happens that everyone has very similar, universal sort of needs and problems and foibles around this stuff.

Go out and do the work first and then put the work into a book later. I think it’s important to have a backstory and a credibility to bring to the book. Let’s say someone’s really coaching on relationships, say just as an idea or a topic. If, on week one of your business, you start writing a book, someone is going to say, “Who are you to tell me about this?” Whereas if I can say, “I’ve taught Outlook to Bill Gates and timekeeping to the Swiss and efficiency to the Germans,” well, there’s a great start. I think it gives you more credibility when you’re in the room with people and when someone picks the book off the shelf. More importantly, it makes the book better because it gives you the experience of all of those conversations.

Was it easy to translate? The hardest bit was, every workshop is a conversation. I’m in a room with fifteen people. If I want to give people a different way to think about e-mail, I can perhaps give them something that’s really controversial. I can say something like, “None of your e-mails matter,” and people recoil a bit. Then they go, “Well, actually, a small number of our e-mails do matter.” Then you get to a place where it’s like, “Okay, so now we can establish something like the 800/20 rule and say, “Twenty of your e-mails are the ones that really matter out of eight hundred.” That has been a conversation and a dynamic that really stimulates people to get to the point of seeing the 800/20 rule, whereas in a book, you have to just start with the 800/20 rule. For me, it’s more difficult to get ideas across, because you only have one shot and you don’t have a comeback. I found that was the most difficult bit for me, the idea that everything in here has to be almost like a fact, rather than a conversation. Also, this is what I think, not just now, but for the next ten years, it’s a kind of legacy thing, as opposed to, maybe in three years, I might change my mind about what I think about this.

That was playing on my mind a lot, when I was writing it. It’s just committing it to paper. It’s weird, isn’t it? Committing things to an e-book still feels like it’s permanent, when really it’s no different to committing things to a Word document or saying them out loud. There’s something about books. There’s a sense of permanence about it that just feels really important, you know?

What advice would you give to someone wanting to write a book to build their business?

Work out who is going to run your business while you go off and write the book. I hear from people a lot, “Hey, I’m doing a few hundred words every day.” I look at them and I think, “Do you even know that when you get to the end of the first draft, you’re a third of the way there?” I sometimes break people’s hearts by just telling them that. Sometimes I refrain, depending on how much of it I think they can take. You have to be serious about it and you have to have somebody else who you really trust to just pick up and run the business while you’re out of the business.

I know people who’ve done books alongside everything else and it is possible, but I think it’s hard. It’s much easier to be a writer for that time, rather than be a writer and a CEO or a writer and a business owner or whatever. Your Sri Lanka might be a coffee shop for an hour, or your Sri Lanka might be working from a home for one day a week, or whatever. It’s about focus and it’s very difficult to carry all the priorities of a business in your head at the same as all the priorities of a book. I think that’s the key there.

Want the book? Buy it here!