Written by Graham Allcott and first published in 2014, this book guides you in a friendly voice through everyday aspects of productivity, particularly at work. Topics covered vary from understanding a “Prodcutivity Ninja”, email efficiency, designing productive meetings, project management and having a conscious control over your attention.
This post is my attempt to revisit the book and highlight some of the things that I liked as well as tie its core concepts into a structure that is logical to me and can help you appreciate the insights derived from the author’s experience
The purpose of the book is to
- inculcate the ‘Ninja mindset’, the recurring figure the author refers to as the entirely human but practice-driven individual who has achieved effortless efficiency
- create a system you can trust as your second brain
- develop a productive process that can handle complex human interactions needed to deliver outcome in a work environment
To convey the core messages to you, the book adopts this simple two stage narrative:
- Define the characteristics of a Ninja
- Use these qualities as the guiding forces of the C.O.R.D. model of productivity suggested by the author
Here’s how I understood it
The Ninja way
The recurring comparisons to a Ninja makes recollecting and relating the concepts of this book easy. I chose to retain the image of the ninja in my mind as I go through the chapters and the information falls into neat little bins.
The core of a Ninja’s fabled powers comes from “response-ability”, the collection of qualities that he or she needs to achieve the mission effectively, calmly and with laser focus. The book elaborates on these qualities.
A Productivity Ninja's Qualities
You need zen-like calm. Remind yourself that, even if you are a ninja, you are human. You are in a world where work never ends and our memory cannot keep up with the amount of information generated. So the only way to forge ahead is to devise a system to handle both and trust it implicitly.
I relate to Graham’s call for ruthlessness, something I need to remind myself. Ability to say “No” where it matters, even to myself. Attention is precious and needs to be assigned to those 20% activities that have 80% impact.
Curate your tools, for knowledge and organization. But the act of curation should not eclipse the actual execution. The function of the tools is to serve, not distract.
Choose to disappear (stealth mode) when deep work needs to be done. Stealth mode is also important when you are dealing with new ideas, build your trusted network and lean on their experience for things outside your knowledge. Save your time to focus on your expertise.
To improve agility, always have buffers in your calendar by design. As long as our work has external variables, things can go awry. Buffers in your schedule and also in the capacity of your system allow you the wiggle room to tackle uncertainty.
The Ninja Radar
While as a Ninja you have to develop the qualities to become more efficient at doing, it is also important to keep an eye out for the events that can prevent you from performing at your best.
Stress is inevitable. But being prepared for it, identifying the early markers of oncoming stress and cutting yourself some slack allows you to weather it without completely uprooting you.
Actively defending yourself against distraction is an essential part of being productive. To that end it is important to make it clear to people around you when you are engaged in deep work and when it is not ok to approach you. Develop a set of routines to put yourself in deep work mode
Boss Mode vs Worker Mode
The author makes a simple but insightful observation about our inner productive modes.
Wants information, data, organization. Looks at the high level system, refines it and develops efficient processes and a conducive work environments.
Wants clear instruction on what to do and when to do it. Needs to match the assigned work against the level of energy or attention available.
Recognizing the existence of these modes and consciously switching from one to the other when their skills are called for allows you to maximize the organization within yourself.
The C.O.R.D. Model
Now that we know the Ninja way of work and life, Graham puts forward his system of building a second brain. With overt references to David Allen’s GTD system, the CORD model is designed to have a system that can tackle everything that comes your way and can be put through into a system designed by you to support your unique work-life systems. Here’s what it means:
Having a universal Inbox, physical and digital. This is an in-tray with no judgment. If it’s occupying your mind then jot it down. The very act of doing so assures your kind that it will be taken care of and so it stops nagging you about it. That is where the part of trusting your system comes into play.
Observe your data streams and be aware of the kind of media that needs a mechanism to be captured: email, handwritten notes, paper, conversations, attachments, videos. Finalize a tool or a set of tools that can capture these for you until you can give it your attention.
This is the phase where you pick up each unit of the data captured in the earlier phase ask it a consistent set of questions. This is where you ruthlessly question the value of each of these and eliminate things that waste your time.
Harvest action and reference items from the pile. Link action to the location where they need to be executed (office, on-the-go, home) and the energy state expected of you. Ensure that you earmark mundane tasks to low energy states. Have a system to track actions that are waiting on others. Prepare SOP checklists for repetitive tasks.
Graham brings the email inbox for most of the examples, but today there are many other systems. Still, email continues to be a central origin point of tasks and notes for many.
He recommends sorting all incoming mails into @action/ @read / @wait categories. This immediately allows you to focus on things that need your attention (action) versus things that need you to follow up with others (wait) and reference items (read). Anything that does not fit into any of these main boxes needs to prove why needs to be in your mailbox at all
This is where you give your “inner boss” a chance to shine. The way to craft an effective review process is to have standard operating procedures processed at regular intervals. In essence, a daily and weekly checklist, consistently executed to keep your projects and master task lists free from redundant entries.
Weekly checklists allow you to reset wayward tasks and update your Life OS. Daily checklists prepare you for the day ahead and allows you to pinpoint the “big rock” items of the day ahead.
If the previous steps are followed diligently then your “inner worker” should be left with clear instructions as well as the resources to perform the task effectively.
This is the stage where you have to create a distraction free environment that allows you to bulk process your action items. Whenever you are engaged in deep work, ensure that your co-workers or people at your home are aware of your need for focus. Feel free to devise a sign that lets people know, or get a good pair of noise cancelling headphones to shut out distractions.
A good way to start is to club tasks by similar locations (office/home/out and about), similar environment (online/offline) and energy states (low energy/high energy). While we’ve been told to value multi-tasking, studies have shown that it is more effective to focus on one task at a time and move forward. This website provides a simple tool for that, read about how you can get it for free here.
The CORD model is designed to take you from a state of unconscious inefficiency to a state of unconscious efficiency. The same way you systematically evolved from dreading to balance a bicycle to showing off wheelies without thinking about the dynamics involved.
The first stage involves meticulously designing the system to become your second brain, deliberately using it and eventually making it your second nature. In the initial stages this will expose sheer volume of knowledge elements, tasks and projects you are juggling. This lets you know why you are often overwhelmed. That is when you move from unconscious inefficiency to conscious inefficiency.
The next stage is to develop the regular habit of updating your second brain and tweaking it as you go along. Everyone’s second brain, just like their primary brain, is unique to themselves. Feel free to experiment until you start seeing results. This requires tinkering with how well you capture all the inbox items, reducing workload through automations, how rigidly you are able to eliminate tasks that waste your time before you plunge into action. This brings you into the realm of conscious efficiency. A state where you are definitely seeing results but you have to watch your step and have the occasional trip-ups
The final state is when the second brain becomes part of your nature. you no longer have to think about which item goes into which folder, what tags are applied. Standard operating procedures are now embedded in your mind and you whizz through building your priority list for the day ahead. Congrats! You’re now in the unconscious efficiency phase.
Before you do your wheelies, take caution, unconscious efficiency is not an absolute state. It is a complacency trap. However good you are with your system today, you are still dealing with variables that can upset the system. Keep learning and upgrading your system.
The book then plunges the system into the real world test scenario: the office.
How a Ninja operates in an office
Key arenas where the Ninja method is tested in an office are projects and Meetings. While the productivity model is well suited for the solo, steely Ninja, how does the Ninja behave in an office? Here’s Graham’s take on that.
While the lone ranger life is fine for some deep work and creative pursuits, large outcomes and multi stage activities require a collective project environment.
This is where the ninja qualities of agility and weapon savviness come into play. It is important to know that when more people are involved, the momentum and variables can change without notice and it is important to create enough buffer within the project’s parameters to accommodate the same.
Focus on defining roles & outcomes early in the project and make scheduled check-ins to establish course and concurrence
Ah, meetings! The subject of enough memes, ridicules and the go to content machine for Scott Adams. However, there are some instances where having a meeting generates the opportunity to manage the emotional fallout of an agenda or to iron out differences or, if done well, to inspire.
Run-of-the-mill meetings is a tug-of-war between the act of listening and doing. Unless the right balance is stuck it could end up in either extreme and that is either posturing or disconnected execution. So what is the author’s advice on handling meetings? Here is the nutshell:
- Avoid time-wasters. Bow out as gracefully as possible and opt for the TLDR to be mailed to you
- Replace with meetings with email threads or one-on-one conversations
- If a meeting is inevitable, remember: 40% Prep/20% on site/40% follow up. That is the golden ratio of effort distribution expected for a truly effective meeting outcome
- Remember to close meetings with measurable action items for the participants, map them to key metrics and then follow up on the progress
So, we’ve got the tools, the system and the mindset. So we’re good here, right?.. Well not quite. You see, like all of the best laid plans this one also has a weak link; maintaining momentum. The best CORD system managed by the most well intentioned Ninjas could still run out of steam if you don’t keep an eye out for the traps. This is what the book has to say about this in its concluding section.
- Be aware of our innate resistance to change that works to sabotage the system. The slightest discomfort our lizard-brain feels tends to choose distraction as a mental escape
- Understand that focus and distraction originate in different parts of the brain. it traps you in the “paralysis of analysis” or in “work adjacent” activities.
So how do you resist this?
- Start with preparing the mind. Rely on powerful routines to step into work mode and schedule your breaks. Adopt methods like Pomodoro to remind your brain that a scheduled break is in the horizon as long as it commits to work in 25 minute stretches
- Identify resistance and meet it head-on. Question yourself on “why?” it feels a certain way. Perhaps there is an aspect of it that your brain feels is too difficult or uncomfortable. Break it into smaller chunks or get external help in addressing it
- Bully your mind’s resistance. Drill in the implication of a failed outcome versus the benefits of a desired outcome. In the daily grind, the brain loses sight of the objective and resists the discomfort of the task in front
- Escape the “perfection” trap. The feeling of not being able to conclude until every aspect is just perfect. It often paralyzes you from moving forward and we spend more time tinkering than delivering
As I mentioned in the beginning, this is an easy read with a friendly tone. I recommend this for people in the early stages of seeking a productive workflow process as it becomes a primer for more intensive techniques. You can pick it up here
If you would like to pursue more practical services from his organization, you can learn more about them here.
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