I had the pleasure to interview Andy Mitchell, founder of ActiveInbox and author of GTDGmail to share with us his productivity hacks.
*please note that this interview was conducted in 2006
An Interview With Andy Mitchell
Can you tell our readers about yourself?
I am Andy Mitchell, best known as the founder of ActiveInbox. I also go by other such titles as Engineer of Systems and Tinkerer of Businesses.
I am a Brit, but a Brit who in the past two years has spent nearly as much time out of my country as in it. Thus all common stereotypes – be they tea at four, a penchant for colonising small countries, a passion for top hats and fopsy politeness, or indeed, tap dancing chimney sweeps – can be neatly sidestepped.
What cannot be sidestepped is my personal organisation.
I am disorganised. As with all problems, admitting it to myself was the hardest part. Since my ‘awakening’ several months ago, I have been enthusiastically – bordering on obsessively – attempting to reduce the overload. Wherever possible I have tried to share my progress with others.
Which brings us neatly to this interview…
What have you done to increase your productivity?
I gave myself a pretty rigorous interrogation, and eventually confessed my true working practices. If you read no more of this interview, I heartily recommend you at least work out your own ‘style’. In productivity, one size certainly does not fit all.
Build a Framework
I follow simple guidelines. Complex rules and massively long lists on ‘how to be productive’ are precisely the kind of clutter I try to avoid.
If I use any software tools I only pick those that are straightforward. If I have to read a manual, or feel overwhelmed by the functionality, I get really rather angry. Your tools should be working for you.
Lay the Foundations
The single greatest productivity aide I employ is to know what I am going to do next at any given place (a similar concept to David Allen’s Contexts and Next Actions).
In particular, I like to decide what I am going to do the next morning, before I go to sleep. Otherwise, I wake up with all the mental acuity of Herman Munster and spend an hour scratching my head and wondering what I should do first.
Forward planning is also great for getting more done – a.k.a. doing a better job. Take these two examples for planning to visit the gym:
- I will go to the gym today
- I will go to the gym at 8pm and do 30 minutes of running and 3 chest sets
The first example means I may make it to the gym and will probably just have a nice chat and a sauna when I get there.
The second example means I will go to the gym, and when I am there I am certain to have a great workout.
Clear the Clutter
Be regular and keep your system clean
It is a fact everyone knows: spend just five minutes each day tidying and it will never get on top of you. So why do we not do it?
In my case, it was “only five minutes? that can wait until tomorrow…”.
My solution was simply to ‘get tough’.
I picked the same time each day for a tidy up and stuck to it. In case I am too busy, I also picked a back up time (I am second-to-none when it comes to deluding myself that I’m too busy to do something).
‘Setting a time’ is a basic psychological trick, but it is certainly effective. Since removing the stress of clutter – both mental and physical – the sky has been bluer, the air fresher, and small children wave at me as I float past.
Tidy Ups: Typical tidy ups include condensing scattered notes into my wiki, tearing up finished hand-written diagrams and ideas, responding to outstanding emails and dumping any tasks/ideas that are still in my mind.
Decide what you least want to do. Do it
If there was a task I did not like, I would find other tasks to justify not doing it. The very essence of procrastination!
The problem is that the boring task would linger over me like an executioner raising his axe. It was stopping me fully concentrating on any other tasks. It was causing me to worry about not having done it.
Tackling what you dislike is the not-too-distant cousin of David Allen’s two minute rule: you are clearing the niggles so you can focus on the tasks that matter.
And for Extra Merit…
The Mega Mini Challenge
I am most likely to procrastinate when there is no pressure; and for me, there can be no pressure unless there is a deadline in a few hours.
Therefore, mundane daily events have to become deadlines. Lunch cannot be taken until X is done. The call of nature cannot be answered until Y is satisfied.
It certainly sparks focus, not to mention weight loss and exemplary bladder control…
Embrace Procrastination (if you can’t beat it, join it!)
So, you want to see if there is a new post on Lifehack.org? Then check it! (Bear with me, this is not an attempt at subliminal advertising…)
Quite simply, if you deny yourself you will just become obsessed with it, and then you are no better off than if you had just checked it in the first place.
The trick is to only spend a few minutes or less doing it… little & often!
An excellent idea is to try one of the many personal timers that are available, and monitor your work habits. (I personally like the web-based SlimTimer). Record the bits where you are not working as you should. Do this for no more than two days – otherwise you will get bored and not do it properly.
You may even find you waste far less time than you imagined – and thus your stress levels will come down even more.
What is your best life hack?
My favourite life hack – which has little to do with productivity – is the gym.
I have been engaging in a somewhat self-inflicting relationship with my local gym for many years; but it is only recently that I have come to appreciate the positive effect it has (beyond giving me the excuse to squeeze one extra bacon sandwich into my daily ritual).
The biology is fairly straightforward – you train, you get endorphins, you burn fat and you feel accomplishment. This all leads to a nice sensation of confidence and control that lasts for several days.
It is the last two – confidence and control – that make all the difference. They enable me to enthusiastically bluster through tasks and overcome even the stuff I have been putting off.
Sadly, I only notice this when I have not been getting my daily dose. Without exercise, I get overwhelmed more easily and procrastinate more readily. And I do not get my bacon sandwich. Which makes me very angry indeed… (There is a distinct possibility that all of the above is hokum, and my complete productive existence is indeed tied to nothing more than a sandwich… the shame!).