How to be less busy, and have more impact


I’ve been through a major shift in how I plan my days and get things done over the last few years.

I used to think a good day was getting as many things done as possible. I felt productive as I ploughed through my lists. But now I realise, I was actually just busy. I could get lots of things done, but my impact was inconsistent.

A better way of putting it is, I didn’t get the return on investment for the amount of time I put in, or the number of things I completed.

Reading How to write a million words – on a slacker’s schedule by Nate Green was a key moment for me. I realised it was better to have fewer focuses, and single task for 60-90 mins at a time.

Reading Deep Work by Cal Newport was another massive nudge in the right direction. It explores the benefits of focusing, concentrating and single tasking. Particularly the environments and routines which can help you get lost in a task or project.

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey is another really great resource. It’s full of short examples of people that produced huge bodies of very successful work. Most of them spent far less working than you might expect. But, what most had in common was the ability to focus, concentrate and single task.

Nowadays, I try and plan my days around a handful of meaningful things. I use focus blocks and single task wherever possible.

Of course, sometimes you have no choice but to power through a list of tasks or run errands. It is, what it is. But, I tend to batch those tasks into an admin time-block now — even if that’s half a day. I find this far better than being distracted throughout the day by these types of small tasks.

For example, this is what my day looks like today:

  • 06.00 – 08.00 – work on some mindset stuff and plan the day
  • 09.00 – 10.00 – two phone calls (both relating to a project I am working on)
  • 10.00 – 12.00 – write and publish this post
  • 12.00 – 13.30 – GMB Elements
  • 13.30 – 14.00 – lunch
  • 14.00 – 16.00 – work on a course I am building
  • 16.30 – 18.00 – take my daughter Fearne to a disco
  • 19.00 – 21.00 – murph (hopefully it doesn’t take me 2 hours 😉 )

As you can see, there is a trend of big things and blocks of time. A decent chunk of exercise, work and family stuff.

Now, I know it’s not always possible to plan any, or perhaps most days like this. For example yesterday I was looking after Fearne and had a list of errands I simply had to get done. And, everyone’s life is different and responsibilities change over time. But, it’s always worth consciously trying, where possible, to block off meaningful chunks of time, to do meaningful single tasks.

This morning I read an awesome post – Slow Down Time by David Cain. It’s somewhat related. He talks about slowing things down and avoiding living life on autopilot. It reminded me how when I was a kid, time really did move slow. A day could last forever.

Now that I think about it, I usually did fewer things, and was more present with whatever I was doing. Most of the time I did one thing at a time. It might have been playing football or video games – but it was still a chunk of time where I just did that one thing. I got lost in it.

It takes a bit of effort to take a step back and think about where you want to spend your time and how to manage it. But, I promise, the payback is always huge.

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Focus and productivity is only half the battle

I’m fascinated with the topic of productivity. For me, it boils down to two things — being able to focus (identify and work on the right things), and then, actually getting things done.

It’s why I think and write alot about goals and the best way to set vision and areas of focus — that’s the ‘identify and work on the right things’ bit. I also geek out on habits, routines and planning frameworks — that’s the ‘getting things done’ bit.

This stuff is important. If you’re not deeply connected to who you want to be and where you want your life to go, you’re more likely to flap around and work on the wrong things. And if you don’t have self discipline and a system for planning, your productivity will suffer.

So, that stuff is super important. But, I realised recently that it’s only part of the battle. And without the other part, you’ll be severely limited and frustrated. The other part might even be more important.

The other part is mindset.

The above stuff can be spot on, but if you have a shitty mindset, it all tends to fall apart quite quickly. If you don’t think you’re good enough and capable enough. If you’re not confident and don’t have a strong sense of self belief — well, it’s very tough. The mindset part is the foundation, that allows the system stuff to work.

Why am I only realising this now?

Because, frankly, I have a shitty mindset. I’ve suffered with a lack of confidence and self-doubt for as long as I can remember.

My main strategy for dealing with it so far, is mostly notice it, and then do my best to ignore and push through it. That’s worked OK so far. I’m very good at the vision, focus and systems stuff, so that propels me forward. I tend to take action and then find myself in situations where I don’t have any choice but to push away the self-doubt.

But, this isn’t a very optimal way of going about things. It causes a lot of internal worry and makes me shy away from opportunities. It adversely impacts my decision making. It affects my mood and happiness. And honestly, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes I don’t take action and sometimes even quit in the middle of something.

I’m starting to see more clearly, that my lack of confidence is holding me back significantly. There are things I want to learn and personal / work projects I want to start — but I’m procrastinating on them. I’m shying away from putting in the work. Ultimately it comes back to a feeling of not being good enough and a lack of confidence.

I build these things into my focuses. I organise them as projects, and build them into my weekly and daily planning just fine. That process works well. But, because I have some issues with confidence, I hold myself back from starting.

I tie myself up with questions like am I really capable of this? Will people laugh when I tell people about it or launch it? Will it fail and cause me embarrassment? Perhaps it’s not even a worthwhile idea. Who am I to come up with an idea that’s worthwhile and can help other people? And then, I become less excited about doing these things and shy away from them.

I (think) only people that know me closely will know this about me. I do a pretty great job of hiding the internal trauma. And like I said, the system stuff tends to propel me forward enough that I can function to get stuff done and be successful at some things.

But, I’ve realised I need to double down on fixing my mindset. I need to make it one of my top priorities for the rest of the year. If I don’t, it will continue to hold me back and I won’t make the most out of life. There is so much opportunity out there and there’s never been a better time to seize it. I can sense if I continue as I am, I will end up with some pretty big regrets.

So, what am I doing about it?

  • Well, firstly, just opening up and talking about it helps. People are often surprised, compliment me on my capability and offer helpful advice.
  • I’m working through a course on confidence and mindset. My brother created it and a lot of people have gone through it and had great results. It’s helping quite a bit already.
  • I’ve changed my morning routine. It used to be 100% about being productive and doing stuff. Now, it’s half mindset stuff and getting in the right frame of mind for the day, and half doing.
  • I’ve started following a few new people (twitter, youtube etc.) who have the mindset I want. That’s inspiring for me and a regular reminder of the type of person I am working towards being.
  • I’m reading more about mindset and confidence type stuff.
  • I’m planning weeks and days, that truly push me to take action and be uncomfortable. More importantly, I’m trying to be very conscious of my mindset throughout and do the right thing. When I start to have feelings of not being good enough and self doubt during the day, I try and notice them and pause. I remind myself that my inner voice isn’t real. It’s telling me lies. And then I try a few things that change my state. Movement, breathing exercises, going back to some of the stuff I am doing in the course. Basically, I try and stop it turning into something bigger that has the potential to derail the day or week.

I’m a few weeks into working on it, and already feel like I’m more confident and taking more action. But, there’s still a lot of work to do.

I wasn’t sure whether to post this or not. It feels a little personal and I was worried that if I talked about it, people may hold me in less regard. But, it can only help me with my goal of becoming more confident and building a growth mindset. And that’s what’s important.

I expect I’ll be writing more a bit this type of stuff, alongside the productivity stuff over the coming months. Watch this space.

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My favourite life changing books

I read a great article recently — If It’s Important, Learn It Repeatedly. It makes a good case for going back and re-reading important books.

So, I went back and read Deep Work by Cal Newport. It’s one of my favorite books and it was even better the second time round. It gave me a renewed enthusiasm for doing deep work and some fresh ideas for how to go about it.

It got me thinking, what other books could I go back and read again?

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High risk investing & cryptocurrency

Whenever anyone asks me for advice about investing, I always give the same response:

Invest in indexes. Contribute regularly, hold for the long term and rarely check.

Then I point them towards two bits of reading — JL Collins Stock Series and Warren Buffett’s $1 million bet. These do a great job of outlining the above approach, with some proof that it actually works.

I’m now convinced it’s worth having a small percentage at a higher risk. And as usual, Barry Avraam is the person responsible for getting me to take more risk. Fred Wilson’s writing on AVC also helped. Crypto Asset Allocation and Diversification (aka How To Survive A Crash) are two posts that have been particularly helpful.

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