Category Archives: Productivity

You’ve got 12 weeks to complete your 2017 goals

12 weeks? Is that all?

I know, 2017 has sped by in a bit of a blur. However, there are still 12 weeks left to make progress on those goals you’ve spent the majority of the year procrastinating on. The good news is, with a bit of planning and forethought, that’s plenty of time.

Learn to think in 12 week years

If you’ve not read The 12 Week Year by Brian P. Moran then go and read it now. You can also check out my 12 Week Year Book Review post if you want to know more.

Prioritise

Okay, so 12 weeks is plenty of time to get things done, but it’s not enough time to get everything done. Work out which goals will give you the biggest impact and leverage then discard the rest. If you’ve not done anything about them so far, they can probably wait another few months anyway.

Engage

Don’t do anything you don’t care about deep down. If you want to make 2017 your best year ever, then do the things that will give you satisfaction and a sense of pride. Obligation and guilt are not the motivators here.

Plan, plan, plan

I don’t care if you do it in an app or on paper, but you need to write down a plan. Between now and the end of the year, social and family obligations shoot through the roof, there are holidays and for many of us, lots of shopping. Don’t pretend this won’t zap your time and energy. Open the calendar and plan the work.

Get specific. Plan the tasks that get you to the goal, not just vague references that make you feel like you’ve written without really having to think about it.

Execute

The hardest part of all. Now you have to act on those tasks you’ve defined. Each day, make sure that you’re working towards the goal, rather than getting distracted by lesser tasks that feel like work, but don’t actually get you anywhere.

Finish strong

Although the end of the year is approaching at break neck speed, it really isn’t too late to make it a great year for your productivity. There may be the temptation to put everything off until the New Year, but if you do, then you’ll find reasons not to start then either. Take the first few, small steps and the rest will follow. Plan the work, work the plan.

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5 lessons learned since The Realist’s Guide to Sugar Free

It has been one year since I published The Realist’s Guide to Sugar Free. So much has happened since it’s almost hard to believe.

My goal in writing the book was to help people understand the dangers and extent of processed sugars being added to our lifestyle. So what have I learned in the year since?

As I’m a compulsive reviewer and improver, I sat down and came up with 5 key things.

1. Falling off the wagon is inevitable

Sugar free living is hard. Really hard. If it wasn’t, then I wouldn’t have written the book. Even with the knowledge and experience I have, in the time since I have fallen off the wagon more than once. So what do you do when this happens? You forgive yourself and learn from the experience.

There are two ways sugar creeps back in. External circumstances beyond your control make things difficult. Then there is personal choice/poor impulse control. The first often leads to a prolonged period of the second.

Unless you have total control over your food, then it is likely that you will encounter a processed meal or two. On its own, it can be fine. A few days of extended travel and it’s back to square one. Your body wants to continue eating the delicious food and the pull is irresistible. Sugar addiction is back in full swing and it takes dedicated effort to get back to healthy eating and stick with it.

So, you will slip up and you need to forgive yourself. Don’t beat yourself up, but put a plan in place to start again. Don’t keep listening to the voice that justifies one more cupcake.

2. Discipline begets discipline

The times when I have been most rigorous about being sugar free are the times when I have been on top of things in plenty of other areas too. Sloppy behaviour has a way of spilling over and the opposite is true.

I’m not saying that going sugar free is the key to solving life’s problems. However, if you want to begin a cycle of self-improvement, pick one cornerstone habit and allow yourself to build from there. For me, that is the physical health that I have always found easier to put on the back burner.

3. ‘Big Food’ is already taking advantage of us

Several well known personalities, especially in the UK, have begun to promote the benefits of a reduced sugar lifestyle. Governments are discussing sugar taxes and health providers are finally coming round to the dangers of sugar, rather than a blanket ban on fats. With increased awareness, you might think that we’re getting closer to an easier shopping experience.

You’d be wrong.

Processed, cheap food is about making profit, and marketing is about making more profit for the same experience and calling it a lifestyle. Big Food marketing to undermine consumer’s attempts at sugar free that I’ve already seen includes:

  • X% less sugar than before! Yes, you’ve made it X% smaller and are still charging me the same price (or more, blaming Brexit). Nice try.
  • Only natural sugars! Yes, you’ve started using fruit sugars instead, but your sugar content is just the same. A particular favourite when it comes to children’s snacks.
  • Sugar free/zero sugar! This takes advantage of the increased desire for sugar-free food, whilst still containing a tonne of the worst kinds of artificial sweeteners. 

4. I want to help people, even though I’m an antisocial introvert

More of a personal one, but worth mentioning. A huge surprise has been the enjoyment I’ve had from people reaching out to me for help. I don’t always have the answers, but I love to point people in the right direction. So if you want to help people, don’t think the only way is to become a keynote speaker or ‘in person’ counsellor. The world always needs more positivity and compassion and this can be done in a million tiny ways.

5. Education is key

I’ve been contacted by people all over the world and it is clear that understanding the ingredients of your food is hard. Food labelling still has a long way to go. Manufacturers will not make it easy.

‘Serving size’ is frequently misleading and makes it hard to calculate % sugar (a particular problem in America, although much easier in Europe). ‘Added sugars’ can refer only to the white stuff, rather than fruit sugar syrups. The phrases ‘healthy’ and ‘low sugar’ are poorly defined and frequently unregulated, making it easy to mislead the consumer.

I’m not going to lie, constant vigilance is exhausting. It’s a long road ahead, but we’ll get there.

Several people have asked for the book to be updated to include recipes. The reasons there aren’t any there already are quite simple. Firstly, I’m no chef. Secondly, people want recipes in cookbooks to be interesting and beautiful. Going sugar free is mainly about mastering the mundane, everyday foods. However, if there is an updated revision, then I will consider including some.

Until then, you can of course sign up to get the first week meal plan I’ve followed to get back on the wagon when I’ve fallen off. It’s basic, but it works for me.

Seasons – Planning Life Alongside Nature

For us in the northern hemisphere, there is no denying the change in the air. Summer is giving way to autumn (or fall, if you want to be all American about it). The kids are back at school. All the upcoming holidays now have an ‘end of year’ feel to them. For those in the southern hemisphere, the reverse is true. Spring is coming and summer will be here before you know it. Time to hit the beach and get outdoors.

It was whilst living in New Zealand that I realised for the first time how productivity and personal development have seasons of their own, often very much inline with nature. Perhaps it was because all my online inputs were largely presenting an experience that was the reverse of the one I was living through. What I did realise was that as the rains came (I was living in Christchurch, there was lots of rain), it became harder to stay motivated and geared up for new projects all the time.

Any productivity guru worth their salt will tell you that you don’t need to wait for the New Year to make a change. Or that every day is a fresh start. It’s all very true. I just think it becomes harder if you try to do it out of sync with the world around you.

Many people live online so much that it makes it easier, in a strange sort of way. When you never leave the house, it’s easy to forget what is going on outside. I know the temptation of the laptop as much as anyone else. Nevertheless, it can contribute to a feeling of burnout when there is no variation, just the non-stop hustle and grind of daily life.

Right now, I am taking a mini-break to plan the remainder of the year. I wanted to be somewhere different, somewhere much closer to nature, to remind myself of this idea. As the days get shorter, it will become harder to get out of bed each morning. The evenings will seem made for curling up under blankets with a good book, not hitting the gym or high intensity projects. I need to remember this so that I don’t fill my days with things I won’t achieve. I don’t like breaking promises to anyone, least of all myself.

So, over the next few weeks when you begin to see articles and blogs reminding you that ‘It’s not too late to win the year!’ and ‘make that final quarter count!’, remember that life is meant to have periods of recovery and renewal. If you’ve left it until nature begins to shut down, then it might be time to consider a different approach next year.

Of course, for those of you in the southern hemisphere, it’s time to get up and at ‘em.

Books for entrepreneurs: Tools of Titans review

Tim Ferriss does not know how to write short books. Don’t let the fact his paperback versions could be used to bludgeon someone to death put you off. He’s a master of the soundbite.

He’s just collected more of them than anyone else.

Tools of Titans is a fantastic book for anyone who wants to try life-hacking. It works because it doesn’t expound a single point of view. Instead, Tim has interviewed hundreds of top performers and asked them what they do. As he says, it’s all in asking the right questions:

“What do these people do in the first sixty minutes of each morning? What do their workout routines look like, and why? What books have they gifted most to other people? What are the biggest wastes of time for novices in their field? What supplements do they take on a daily basis?”

Of course, this results in some contradictory approaches. But it never seems like he is doing this to cover all bases and therefore always be right. Instead, it’s clear how certain techniques suit different personality types, or specific sets of circumstances. This allows you to cherry pick the ones that work for you. And if they don’t work, a quick flick through the book and you’re sure to come up with a Plan B.

The book itself is divided into three broad sections: healthy, wealthy and wise. There is fluidity between them all, as certain tips and tricks can be applied effectively in all three life areas. It gives the book a sense of structure though that allows you to start where you need the most help. Tim’s writing voice is quite distinctive, so if you don’t gel with his podcast style, you might struggle with reading. I find him to be a highly engaging speaker, so I went through all 674 pages in a week. Most sections contain direct quotes from his interviewees, so there is plenty of variety to keep your brain engaged.

This is one of those books I would recommend without hesitation to anyone who wanted to level up their life. If you’re looking for productivity tips, diet and exercise hacks, habits and routines, meditation and yes, even raw and candid advice for those who are depressed to the point of suicidal, then this is the book for you.

You might even find the thing you didn’t know you really needed along the way.

You can buy Tools of Titans on Amazon and all other good retailers. For more information about Tim and his work, check out toolsoftitans.com

How to create a successful morning routine

Why set up a morning routine?

These are a few benefits I’ve found from my own routine over the years.

For many years, a corporate job took most of my time and energy. I would come home from work and have nothing left to give for things that were important to me. I wanted to be a writer, but I never actually wrote anything. This all changed when I dedicated just an hour every morning to my writing. Having a morning routine allows you to dedicate time to the things that matter to you most.

Precious alone time. In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with interruptions, whether in real life, social media or any other online input. A successful morning routine, one that was clearly defined, gave me a definite course of action, so I always knew what to do next. That removed ‘check twitter’ from my list of options. That space gave me time to think about what was important and also sheltered me from negative bombardment from the moment I woke up.

There are many other benefits, but those two give the biggest returns for a happier and more fulfilling life.

So how do you set up a morning routine?

It’s easier than you think.

Firstly, ask yourself what you hope to achieve from doing this. Everyone will have different objectives. Is it to make time for your creative projects? Is it to make sure you get in a good workout each day? Or perhaps it is to read or work on personal development. What matters most to you will make up the core of the routine.

Secondly, decide how much time you want to devote to this activity. Be realistic. If you want to do a thirty minute workout but have to go to the gym, then include the travel time and showering afterwards. No one will thank you if you run out of time for that. The amount of time required will impact on how early you need to get up in order to complete the routine before beginning your existing obligations.

Thirdly, don’t start too big. Habits take time to become routines and the more you add in, the more likely you are to become overwhelmed and give up. My morning routine started out with a simple, single task: write 1000 words before breakfast. Over time, that has developed into a multi-step routine, but I needed to get used to doing that single but significant task first.

Be in it for the long haul

So what does my routine look like now? It combines several elements that I have seen successful authors, businesspeople and entrepreneurs confirm as being instrumental for them.

1) Begin with a pint of water. I used to go straight to coffee, but never underestimate the power of rehydrating after 7 hours of sleeping.

2) Write 1000 words. That’s still my big goal after 6 years of doing this.

3) Morning Pages – adapted from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. You’re really supposed to do them before anything else, but for me they have actually always been more effective after my half-asleep writing session. The last page always contains three things I am grateful for that morning.

4) 20 Pushups. Really not many, but it makes me feel like I’ve at least done something physical and makes me more likely to do other activity throughout the day.

5) Affirmations and visualisations. Yes, I still feel like an idiot sometimes saying these things out loud, but they do work. I’m shy and introverted by nature, so this gives me the confidence to step outside my comfort zone when I need to.

6) Goals review. Don’t work hard to climb that ladder just to discover it’s up against the wrong tree. Work out what you want and remind yourself every day to stay focused on what matters, rather than what simply feels urgent.

7) Calendar review. It doesn’t matter what grand goals you have for that day if your calendar says you have back-to-back meetings. Again, be realistic.

8) Task list review. By the time I’ve reviewed what matters (goals) and what’s immovable (calendar), it makes it much easier to delete, delegate or defer tasks on my list. What remains still needs to get done, but this way I don’t waste my energy on unnecessary tasks before I get to them.

The power of a morning routine means that these tasks take less time as you repeat them. The whole process above now takes somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours. That’s from 6-8am at the latest. That gives me a whole hour to have breakfast, get showered and be at my desk by 9am.

I’ve already achieved things that matter to me and mentally prepared for my day by the point most people are just thinking about booting up the laptop.

None of this will work unless…

A meticulously planned morning routine with all the best intentions and activities will still fail unless you actively set yourself up for success the night before. Unless you have the luxury of being beholden to no-one, you’re going to have to sacrifice some morning sleep to get this done.

A successful morning routine means ensuring you go to bed early enough to get the quality sleep you need. If there are any objects/spaces that are essential to your routine, then these should be found or made clear the night before to remove as much friction as possible and ensure you can make every minute of your morning routine count.

Hopefully this has given you some ideas about how to set up a morning routine and how to grow it into something that makes a huge difference in the level of success and satisfaction you get from your day. If you have any questions or thoughts then drop them in the comments section below, or you can get in touch with me by email at realist@sherrinicholds.com.

Tools of the trade: Field Notes Campfire Review

As a reminder, I use analogue tools for creative planning (including business strategy, idea generation and note taking). Therefore the items I use have to meet three criteria. They must be:

  • Attractive to use, so they make me want to write
  • Portable, so I can use them at my desk, office or coffee shop
  • Flexible, so they are appropriate in multiple scenarios

So how does the quarterly Field Notes Campfire release shape up against those requirements? Great, actually.

The different cover designs are awesome

Compared to the previous two releases (Utility and Black Ice), this edition feels like a Field Notes book. It has shades of Americana that people expect from a company like Field Notes. It is part of their brand appeal. For me, the two previous editions were innovation over functionality. They reduced the usability of a product that I want to carry with me at all times.

So are they attractive to use? Oh yes. A big tick in the box on that score. The three different covers add variety and they have a beautiful tactile finish on the covers. Nice additional touches include the different shade of grid lines in each book to match the key tones of their respective covers.

Attention to detail with the grid line colours

As for portability, Field Notes always have that covered. Of their 35 quarterly editions, only two have broken away from the pocket book size (Arts and Sciences and Byline). Both were great alternatives, but not as truly portable as the pocket size. Campfire Edition has the portability that we’ve come to expect from Field Notes and fits in all those standard carry cases as well as your back pocket.

Straight into my trusty Nock Co case

Finally, flexibility for use in both personal and business scenarios. Field Notes are never going to be corporate like Moleskine or Leuchtturm1917, but they’re not trying to be. At the same point, neither are they offensive or too gimmicky most of the time. If I had to pull these out in a client meeting, they’re the kind of notebooks that might attract attention, but in good ways. They don’t scream unprofessional.

As for the paper, I haven’t found it to be a problem with fountain pens, as long as I’m not using a big juicy wet nib and ink. There’s very little feathering or bleed through on the page, which means I don’t have to stop and think about the pen I’m using before beginning to write.

Very little bleed through on the page

Overall, I give this one a big thumbs up and can’t wait to see what the next quarterly release is. Fall is subscription renewal time for me, but I have a mountain of pocket notebooks still waiting to be used. It will be interesting to see if Field Notes pull something out of the bag that makes it impossible for me to resist subscribing for another year.

You can buy the Field Notes Campfire Edition here until they’re sold out.

Books for Entrepreneurs: Essentialism

Greg McKeown’s infamous book, Essentialism, has been on my reading list for a long time. I can’t even remember when or where I first heard about it, but those who mentioned it always spoke of its life changing effect.

When you read a lot of business and personal improvement books like I do, you get used to people waxing lyrical about how things will never be the same after adopting strategy x. This may turn out to be one of those rare occurrences where it happens to be true. The constant doing more, but achieving less. Never feeling satisfied or that the day was meaningful.

As I began reading, I was relieved to discover I already had quite a few essentialist habits. I discovered the underlying cause of friction I felt on many projects: my broadly essentialist approach versus the non-essentialist approach being taken.

This meant that in addition to completing the task itself, I had to work out the true intent and purpose of the project. Where some people are happy to just complete any task (usually just taking the easiest route to something approximating done), I have never accepted mediocre as the target to aim for. Instead, I would rather take longer to work out how to provide a valuable outcome.

But although I was embracing essentialism in many areas, in others I was getting woefully distracted. My personal life, especially, was in free-fall at the time of reading this book. In no small part this was due to the mental exhaustion that came with battling work tasks handed to me that were governed by non-essentialist principles.

So how has this book helped me? Largely by giving me the confidence not to accept a task without getting those in charge of the project to clarify their thinking about it first. Sometimes, the person handing out that task is me. As a freelancer or entrepreneur, understanding essentialism is vital for avoiding burnout.

It’s hard to ask difficult questions sometimes, but it gives me the boundaries to not only do good work, but also valuable work.

The best part of this is that I ultimately freed up valuable creative energy to expend into my personal life and projects. I developed a new infrastructure for 2017 that allowed me to be location independent and travel.It also gives me the framework to consider carefully my side projects and see which ones are ready to move from hobby to business and which ones simply need to be cut from my life, no matter how enjoyable they seem on the surface.

For the first time since reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I have experienced a fundamental shift in what I believe is achievable and what my life needs to look like to get there. The confidence comes through in the decision making process. Whilst success is never guaranteed, I am giving myself the best possible shot at living a meaningful life, rather than a purely busy and productive one.

With challenging economic and political times ahead, Essentialism is one of the books I would recommend for anyone who wants to make the most of future opportunities in the changing workforce.