This post is part of a series in Productivity and Getting Shit Done. You can read the original introduction article here and part #1 here, part #2 here, and part #3 here.

I’ve already explored the concept of multi-tasking being a myth, and how the very best in productivity comes from complete focus: focusing your time; focusing your attention; and focusing on the end, rather than the start.

To best leverage the concept of focus, a dedicated space will go a long way.

We already do this in other regions of our lives. Our bedrooms are – or should be – for sleeping: if your bedroom isn’t optimally setup for sleeping, you’re doing your health a disservice. Block any light, remove your digital devices, ensure a supply of clean air, etc.

Our homes are a little more open-plan these days, but generally the kitchen is for cooking, the lounge is for relaxing, the bathroom is for hygiene, etc, etc. You get the idea. Dedicated spaces, ensuring you apply the right level of focus.
We need to learn to apply that same “space” focus to our business and our creativity.

Your office – your working space

If you tell me you’re trying to work from your kitchen bench, or using your laptop in your bed, I can tell you exactly why you’re not smashing your goals and achieving your dreams.

A little more brutal and honest than you might expect from me, but true. I’ve never found a single story of a successful entrepreneur who actually achieved great things from their breakfast bar. Pieces of greatness, sure. Little eureka moments, of course. Bits & bobs of productivity, yep. But nothing truly great comes from your couch.

I’m sorry. But you needed to hear it.

I’ve got myself an office. We purposely bought this very house because of the office, slightly detached from the living areas, downstairs, beside the garage. It’s not perfect – I’d rather a studio space outside, whereby I need to leave the house – but the act of moving downstairs still separates me from my “home” life, and my family.

My office isn’t glamorous. It’s not insta-worthy. And I don’t care. It’s my productivity hub. When I step into that office, I’m in “do” mode.

And that should mean, no working from the kitchen bench, no laptop in bed.

No children allowed

I learned this the hard way. A very, very, painful way.

Today I make no apologies. When I’m working, I’m working. My kids are not allowed in my office. I don’t mix work and family. I don’t work at the dining table. I don’t work when I’m bathing the kids. I don’t work when we go on holiday.

Years ago, I had a vision that I could work alongside my children playing. They could be rummaging through the LEGO table, and I’d be seated at the dining table getting stuff done. They’d be watching a movie, and I’d be focused on my work.

This. Does. Not. Work. For. Me.

No apologies. The kids disappear (school, daycare, parties, walks, grand-parents) and I focus like no other time. The kids return, and I’m a dad.

Switch.

My kids are the most important thing in my life, and everything from this point forward is to ensure they get the best opportunities to live their best life. But to help them, first I need to help myself. Put on my own lifemask.

Some days I might get 6 hours maximum of productive time. But those 6 hours better be the greatest 6 hours they can possibly be.

Headphones

Simple magic. These Sony noise-cancelling headphones are one of the smartest things I’ve ever purchased. I’ve spent a lot of money on a lot of things, and this is $500 I wish I’d spent years and years earlier.

brain.fm

Another secret. There’s science to back this up (‘Dynamic Attending Theory‘ anyone?) but I can simply confirm from personal experience: functional music directly optimised for focus really really works. Music with lyrics? No. Podcasts? NO.

Non-binaural modulation? Yes.

Confused? Just try brain.fm – their free trial is, well, free!

A tool for each job

Single purpose. A tool for each job. With a few exceptions, you should consider a single tool for a single role.

Xero works far better for your accounting and invoicing than a spreadsheet ever will. Photo Mechanic is still a better tool for culling than using Lightroom (don’t @ me). If you’re serious about videography you really should have a dedicated video rig – yes, your SLRs and mirrorless work, but they’re not the greatest. You should have a dedicated bag for your wedding gear that doesn’t get picked apart and upended for other jobs, only to find you left something at home for the next wedding. Your speedlight batteries should be for your speedlight only, not for your remotes and your kid’s toys. Your email shouldn’t be used as your TO DO list (see article #2 for more on that). I could go on and on – but you get it.

In my office, I have 3 computers. THREE! I now have a dedicated computer for my Zoom calls and video recording. I have a dedicated computer for my photography culling and editing (with a massive array of hard drives). And I have a laptop for my more creative work, like writing, emails, building workshops, etc. The tools can be similar across the machines, but the overlap is pretty minimal.

This ensures that when I sit down to record a video, I’m not distracted by Lightroom. When I decide to write this article, I’m not distracted by my latest Powerpoint.

A task that requires specific focus should have a specific tool, along with a specific place.

(I’m not even writing this post from my home office, I disappeared to a cafe – change of task, change of environment.)

A purposeful uniform

During our country’s 5 week COVID-19 lockdown period, I made a habit of getting dressed every. single. day. And not just anything, but a shirt (with buttons!!!), pants, even shoes.

I wasn’t leaving the house much. Very few people were seeing me.

Yet, the very act of being “dressed” for work, helped with that mindset shift: I’m working.

Some people call it a ‘uniform’. It’s a specific set of clothes for a specific activity. It tells your brain that you’re about to become focused on a particular activity. You put on your overalls to work in the garage. You put on your painting gear to paint the house. You put on your gardening gloves to tend to your weeds. You put on your exercise gear to tell your brain & body that you’re going for that run.

Same with your work. Define a work uniform. Put it on.

So, have you a dedicated space, routine, tool, and uniform for your tasks?

This post is part of a series in Productivity and Getting Shit Done. You can read the original introduction post here and part #1 here and part #2 here.

The power of a deadline

Have you ever been working on something for weeks and weeks, months and months, and barely made any progress? Feels like you’re going nowhere?

And yet, you still manage to get it done and deliver by your deadline?

I’ve had this feeling with:

  • university papers
  • delivering wedding galleries
  • these very blog posts (!!!)

In fact, if you’re anything like me, you always, always deliver. Every. Single. Time.

No matter how much time you’ve got, whether 3 months – or 3 hours – the work gets done.

Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law dictates that work will expand to fill the time available.

I’ve seen it in action in everything from watching my wife prepare dinner, through to big monstrous IT projects, and anything in between.

Our brain knows and understands the implication of that deadline, and will only allow you to take action when that deadline presents a risk.

When your brain knows something is due, it doubles-down to get it done.

Define the end of everything

This is literally, the secret.

Don’t define when you will start something, define when you will finish it.

The most successful people define a task by when it’s due to complete, not due to start.

Such a small change, but such an important distinction.

What does this look like for a creative?

It might be:

  • telling your clients when you’ll deliver their gallery
  • creating a calendar item, and only allowing social media time within that window
  • telling yourself you’ll finish your emails before your 25min pomodoro timer beeps
  • turning up to my weekly Blogging Bootcamp calls with a wedding blogged!

The difference is, all of these have a completion time, not a start time.

Yeah… a deadline.

My approach

I use a combination of 2 things:

  • My calendar
  • My “focus list”

Calendar

If something must occur in a very specific and strict timeframe, it goes in the calendar.

Every. Time.

All meetings – obviously – but also any other deadlines, whether external or self-imposed.

For me, I control and restrict my time heavily. Everything from picking up my son from daycare, to my morning run, to specific daily/weekly actions I must do, are in my calendar.

As an example, here’s today’s schedule:

I don’t need to explain the power of a calendar, the appointments, and how they impact the urgency in your brain. These just work.

Focus List

Finally, I don’t use a “to do” list in the traditional sense, because they just becomes screens and screens, pages and pages, of stuff.

A “focus list” is broken into the following sections:
=== NEXT 10 MINUTES ===
=== NEXT HOUR ===
=== NEXT DAY ===
=== NEXT WEEK ===
=== NEXT MONTH ===

Actions, tasks, items – they get placed in here based on their “urgency”.

I review this daily, but at any point in time, I’m only looking at the === NEXT 10 MINUTES === section – once that’s completed, I allow myself to jump into the === NEXT HOUR === or === NEXT DAY == sections, and move something up.

Simple, but powerful.

What do you think? Could you schedule your work on when a task will finish?

Are you constantly jumping between tasks?

This post is part of a series in Productivity and Getting Shit Done. You can read the original introduction post here and part #1 here.

I’m constantly being pulled between tasks and tools

The smartest and most productive people do something very subtle, but very important, with their time.

Yes, they break their day into “chunks” (5 minutes, 25 minutes, 45 minutes, whatever works for you), but more importantly they “batch” similar tasks together.

Batching

Batching, or time batching, is a technique that groups similar tasks together, and then sets aside specific time to complete them (or work on them until a particular point).

I’ll repeat that again:

  1. Group similar tasks together
  2. Set aside specific time to complete them

Most tasks, if broken down correctly, are actually rather small. To give ourselves the best chance of starting a task, it helps to make it small enough that it’s just above our belief system, but not overly huge, audacious, or scary.

When tasks are small, however, a lot of time is wasted switching between tasks.

side note: this task switching, incidentally, is what people confuse with multi-tasking. Multi-tasking as we typically believe, is a myth, it’s really just your brain switching between multiple tasks really quickly. Real multi-tasking does exist, but it’s slightly different…

For example

An email may take 2 minutes to write, but involve 5 minutes of:

  • opening our email client / browser (ideally you shouldn’t have it open all day long)
  • finding & opening the email
  • collecting whatever information you need for the email
  • composing and writing the email
  • archiving the email as appropriately
  • getting distracted by something else in your inbox

That’s a 250% time increase, and that kind of expansion of time – over the course of your day – really builds up, negatively.

Some real world examples

Think about it this way, would you write your shopping list like this?

  • milk
  • bananas
  • muesli
  • yoghurt
  • cheese
  • kiwifruit
  • half walnuts
  • tinned tomatoes
  • chicken breasts
  • Camembert cheese

I don’t know your supermarket layout, but I guarantee there’s not a single supermarket in the world where that list is written efficiently. You’d be jumping from the fridge > fruit&veg > dried goods > fridge > fruit&veg > dried goods > meat > fridge… you’d be back & forward across the supermarket, your visit would take you twice as long as it needed, if not more.

(I use this example because this is how my wife used to write her shopping lists… it drove me utterly crazy!)

Or consider a simple break during the day. You’d leave your office / workstation, and you’d:

  • have a pee ( bathroom )
  • make a coffee ( kitchen)
  • prepare some food ( kitchen)

… all at the same time, in the same batch. It would be ludicrous if you visited the kitchen for a coffee, only to return 30 mins later to make some lunch, and then realise you needed a bathroom break another 15 mins later.

You batch those actions together, and you do it naturally.

So why wouldn’t we do the same with our business tasks???

What does that look like for a creative?

Many of us believe our lives involve a huge variety of different tasks, but if you take time to analyse the variety of tasks you undertake, you’ll realise there’s not as many as you think.

It’s eye opening to realise that we feel we have thousands of tasks, but in reality we typically have no more than 150 tasks across our entire life, let alone within our business.

I’ll repeat that: you don’t do as many tasks as you believe you do.

Consider, for instance, the following list of tasks that probably constitutes 80% of a photographer’s typical day:

  • Reading & filtering incoming email, messages, DMs
  • Editing images
  • Writing and responding to emails
  • Refreshments, food & coffee
  • Writing blogs / articles / posts
  • Social Media content / posts
  • Business admin tasks (accounting, paperwork, etc)
  • … there’s not a lot more in a typical day

However, I’ve worked with too many creatives who spend their entire day jumping between their Email > Lightroom > Email > Insta > Email > FB > Insta > FB > Lightoom > Xero > Email > Lightroom… and that level of task switching is severely affecting their focus & productivity.

I can see many of you nodding your heads. I see you!

Ready to own Time Batching?

Here’s a simple batching process:

1. Identify your tasks

Whether a To-Do list or a Focus List (my favourite), ensure you capture the tasks and importantly the context (tool / place / system) they require:

  • Respond to the overnight enquiry (email)
  • Contact the venue with some imagery (lightroom + email)
  • Edit 100 photos from the last wedding (lightroom)
  • Edit a photo for social media (lightroom + Insta)
  • Get back to that enquiry’s further questions (email)
  • Reconcile today’s accounting txns (Xero)

The content is so important, as you’ll see below:

2. Batch your tasks

Go head and group them – find related tasks and align them together:

  • Lightroom
  • Edit 100 photos from the last wedding (lightroom)
  • Edit a photo for social media (lightroom + Insta)
  • Contact the venue with some imagery (lightroom + email)
  • Email
  • Respond to the overnight enquiry (email)
  • Get back to that enquiry’s further questions (email)
  • Contact the venue with some imagery (lightroom + email)
  • Insta
  • Edit a photo for social media (lightroom + Insta)
  • Xero
  • Reconcile today’s accounting txns (Xero)

See the important difference? All Lightroom tasks happen together. All email tasks happen together. This is batching at it’s simplest and most efficient.

(Side note: you’ll notice I’ve put Lightroom editing first and Xero reconcilation last. This is intentional for my energy levels: for me, Lightroom editing is my most hated and despised task, so I accomplish that first thing when my energy levels are highest. There’s more to learn on energy levels and tackling big projects later…).

3. Set Your Timer

From the previous post, focus on the next 10 minutes (creating the good “eustress”) and set your Pomodoro timer. Remember, the point of time batching is to help your attention & focus, we can only stay fully focused for so long.

Do the work!

What do you think?

I’d love to know how this resonates with you?

Are you already a ‘batcher’, do you process your tasks optimally like this?

Or would you like some more help identifying and batching your tasks? Reach out, happy to assist!

Do you routinely make a habit of owning the next 10 minutes?

This post is part of a series in Productivity and Getting Shit Done. You can read the original introduction post here.

How long can you stay focused on a single task?

Especially if that task is anything but interesting?

In 1948, the Mackworth clock test was developed to assess British Air Force radar technicians during World War II. They were trying to determine how long they could be expected to maintain focus, and how efficient they were at recognizing targets over long periods of time.

It’s since been re-designed and re-developed and used to asses people’s state of concentration. There are many findings and reports, but the more recent research suggests that decreases in focus occur in the first fifteen minutes of a task, and even earlier when the task is demanding.

Then, as you’ve expected, there’s the research indicating our attention span and focus is shortening even further due to mobile phones, the internet, news & media, and on and on.

All you need is ten minutes

However, we may be able to use this to our advantage.

The 10 minute rule is very simple: you simply ask your brain how you can most effectively use the next 10 minutes. You’re not trying to structure your morning, schedule your day, or even plan your entire year (those are different processes).

Just asking your brain to own the next 10 minutes.

“what will I do in the next 10 mins to make it easier to live my ultimate life?”

A 10 minute window creates a certain amount of eustress – believe it or not, a certain type of “good” stress (the Greek prefix eu- means “good”).

Most of us equate all stress with negative experiences – but this is a positive kind of stress.

Stress is actually helpful. Focus comes from stress. You reach a state of ‘flow’ when you’re placed under a certain amount of stress. A challenge helps create stress.

A human can’t reach a precision-like state of focus without being stressed.

Hear this: we function at our very best when we are stressed.

“Eustress helps us stay motivated, work toward goals, and feel good about life.”

By asking ourselves to absolutely and utterly own the next 10 minutes, time and time again all day long, we place ourselves into this state of eustress where we’re focused, energised, and challenged.

Expanded into 25 minute cycles

If you haven’t yet heard of the Pomodoro Technique, have a read of this or this.

It’s simple:

  1. Choose a task you’d like to get done
  2. Set the Pomodoro for 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings
  4. Take a short break
  5. Every 4 pomodoros, take a longer break

That’s it. Resist the urgent to overthink it. Pomodoro’s utility is in its simplicity.

Truth is, we all work slightly differently, we all have different periods of optimal working time. It may be worthwhile using trial & error to figure out what length of time you can focus before taking a break. It may be shorter, it may be longer. Find your optimum pomodoro.

The most successful people, the very highest achievers in our society, they don’t actually work non-stop all day. They realise that optimal productivity is like a series of short sprints.

  • Lebron James doesn’t think of a basketball game as a 2-hour marathon, it’s 200 possessions of 24 seconds each.
  • Elon Musk intentionally plans his day out in five-minute increments or ‘time blocks.’
  • One of my mentors uses 45 minute pomodoros – he’s discovered he can focus for that period before his attention starts to slip.
  • Researchers Anders Ericsson, and then Tony Schwartz, found that the best performers all work without interruptions for 90-minute periods.

The time varies, and the time value itself isn’t important – it’s the “cycle”, and then the rest.

The important part of this, I believe, is the rest: we need a break, our bodies sends us signals such as hunger, tiredness, we fidget, we lose focus. We try to fight them.

Learn to take that break. Then reset, own the next 10 minutes, and start that timer again!

But… control???

By controlling your schedule, you’re dedicating time to the important work that matters for creative pursuits, and you create a feeling of relief in your brain, allowing you to go deeper in your creative time.

Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals book profiles many world-famous creatives. Very few adopt a “I’ll work when I feel inspired” attitude — they instead controlled their day so they could control their art.

Control your day so you can control you art. I love it.

I’ll admit it.

I’m a productivity nerd.

Getting things done. Automation. Systems. I geek out on this stuff. I love it.

My shelves contain books on habits, getting things done, more habits, Lean thinking… you name it, I’ve probably got it. I recently invested $3,800 on another productivity program last month, looking to improve my output. Any improvement, any breakthrough, is worth it.

Time is limited

Time is one of the only true limited resources we have. There is no shortage of education, no lack of ideas, more money can always be found, most things we desire can be found in abundance.

Yet you can’t find – or make – more time.

However, with the value of time being so high, you can learn to protect your time.

Protecting your time

I’ve learned many things, but sitting #1 across the most successful people in the world is the concept of protecting your time.

Time is absolutely irretrievable. Lose time and you will not get it back.

How do I ensure that my time is spent wisely? That I maximise – and protect – my time?

1. Own the next ten minutes

Do you routinely make a habit of owning the next 10 minutes?

2. Batch actions together

Are you constantly jumping between tasks?

3. Define when a task will finish

Do you still manage to deliver by a deadline?

4. Create spaces for productivity

Do you have a dedicated space, routine, tool, and uniform for your tasks?

5. Rest & Recovery

… still to come.

The conflict between productivity and creativity

It’s generally agreed that it’s hard to be creative and productive at the same time – the belief is that Productivity and Creativity don’t sit well together.

Whilst I’m not attempting to dispel this as a myth – I understand and appreciate the conflict between productivity and creativity – I believe they can compliment each other.

I believe that more efficient systems and better productivity can improve your life overall, stop you being pulled in too many directions, and helps free up time to be more creative.

Better Productivity leads to more Creativity. This is how I believe it works.

What about you? How are your systems?