Productivity

The Anti-Todo List

For some time, I’ve gradually realised that my day is not only occupied by tasks from my todo list. Often, there are lots of other tasks which deserve time in my day just as much as those I have in my todo list. Previously, I found that these extra tasks detracted massively from my feeling of productivity and happiness.

It was when I read a great article from the guys at iDoneThis three weeks ago which I made some concrete changes and started to feel consistently much more productive. Since then, the Anti-Todo List has become a daily habit, so I want to share it with you.

The Anti-Todo List concept

My approach with the Anti-Todo List is to have not just a single list each day, as many of us do now (our todo list), but to have two. The idea of the Anti-Todo List is that it is the account of progress for that day. In some ways it’s a “Done” List. This is really powerful, because you can always look back at your Anti-Todo List and see how much you’ve got done (even if the items weren’t on your todo list).

Just like how you get a little rush by crossing something off your todo list, the Anti-Todo List goes even further and suggests that you actually write the items down fresh, and write all the additional tasks you end up accomplishing which weren’t necessarily on your todo list. This has given me an extraordinary feeling of productivity and fulfilment and I’ve found it helps me sustain my productivity throughout the week, whereas previously I would be “knocked down” a little by the fact I sometimes had extra things come up which I needed to complete.

The Anti-Todo List and feeling productive

I’ve realised that without the Anti-Todo List, whenever I was doing a task not on my todo-list, no matter how important and useful the task (and many unexpected tasks lead to massive returns!), I generally always had on my mind that it was detracting from the time I had for the items on my todo list, and that it didn’t “count”. Here’s an example, the tasks in the lower half are the ones which were not on my todo list:

The split between todo-list tasks and non-todo list tasks could be defined as proactive vs reactive. Clearly, we need to be proactive in order to make great progress moving forward (we shouldn’t be controlled by the emails we receive), but we inevitably have tasks during the day which are not on our todo list but do deserve our time. The key, is to write those items down in your Anti-Todo list, and get that same feeling as when you cross something off your todo list. With this little change, I now feel more like this most days:

It’s made a real difference for my feeling of productivity, since a lot of the time I used to have that “where did the day go?” feeling without being able to remember what I did. Now I look at my Anti-Todo List and feel great about all the things I got done. It’s literally possible to move those tasks above the line and create a feeling of productivity. That’s powerful.

My changing role at Buffer, and the Anti-Todo List

One of the most interesting things happening right now is that my role is adjusting rapidly. Whereas previously I would spend a lot of my time coding, I’m now spending lots of time hiring and working on the culture at Buffer. This has meant I’ve switched from a pure maker workflow to more of a manager schedule.

One of the most important things is that I’m now a potential blocking point for people to get on with their work, and I need to avoid that. Matt Blumberg put it well in his article What Does a CEO Do, Anyway?:

Dont be a bottleneck. You don’t have to be an Inbox-Zero nut, but you do need to make sure you dont have people in the company chronically waiting on you before they can take their next actions on projects. Otherwise, you lose all the leverage you have in hiring a team.

As a result, a lot of the time I have things I do during the day which weren’t on my todo-list. Things which come up and I need to do, which are actually a big part of moving Buffer forward. The Anti-Todo list has been a vital lifeline for me in this change from a maker schedule working through a todo list without much deviation, to a manager schedule with useful interruptions.

The other great side-effect is that I can take a look at my Anti-Todo list each day to validate that I’m making progress on the right things. If I have too many unexpected tasks and not enough from my to-do list, I stop to think about whether I’m letting my tasks be defined too much by others. I then make some adjustments and prioritise the more proactive tasks. I think it’s about a balance, and having two lists is a great way to achieve that.

Have you ever tried keeping an Anti-Todo List each day? I’d love your thoughts on this topic or other methods you’ve found useful.

Photo credit: Anna-Maria Mueller

Creating a sleep ritual

My first post on this blog was one where I pondered whether exercise is a requirement for sleep. The post was actually triggered by my inability to sleep, and I wrote it in the middle of the night. Since then, I have made a number of adjustments and I now sleep much better, so I’d like to share what I’ve changed.

Why create a sleep ritual?

As an early stage startup founder, I’ve found the emotional ups and downs to be incredible. In my experience so far in building my latest startup, there have been many different events which have caused a huge amount of joyful moments, and there are undeniably times when you wonder how you are going to progress and how you are going to handle the sheer chaos in which you’ve chosen to live. It is easy to work long hours, become very unproductive and find yourself enjoying the moments less.

In my experience, you have enough against you if you’re running a startup that feeling exhausted for the majority of every day is not a wise idea. I’ve realised over the last few months that balance, however elusive it might sound, is very important. A key example is how crucial feedback and communicating with users is at the beginning of a startup. For me, I find that the emails I write are much better, and the energy I can put into responding fast and positively to Tweets is higher when I am well rested.

What is a sleep ritual?

I learned about rituals from The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz. Whilst habits are often seen as activities you have to force yourself to do, rituals are instead activities which you are pulled towards. A good friend introduced me to the book, and also helped me craft a new ritual to help me get to sleep at a good hour and in a good state of mind each night. It takes some time to convert a habit into a ritual, but once you have it becomes something that does not require thought or energy, and instead can provide you with vast amounts of extra energy.

I’ve adjusted this ritual over time, and it can be simplified to two important parts:

Disengage: An activity to allow total disengagement from the day’s work. For me, this is going for a 20 minute walk every evening at 9:30pm. This is a wind down period, and allows me to evaluate the day’s work, think about the greater challenges, gradually stop thinking about work and reach a state of tiredness.

Avoid re-engaging: After the activity, go straight to bed. Be sure that all devices are in a separate room to the one you sleep (and slient). Once in bed, do not read books which are related to your work in any way. For me, this means reading fiction.

Adjusting and improving the ritual

It’s important to start with something simple, so that you can keep to it and allow it to convert from being a habit you struggle with to a ritual you are pulled towards doing. Once you are performing the ritual regularly, you can start to add more good habits and let those become rituals too.

Recently, I have combined early morning exercise with my sleep ritual. The sleep ritual helps me get a good night’s sleep, and allows me to get up very early. I like early mornings, and I like to start the day feeling refreshed and confident. I’ve also been trying to make going to the gym a regular part of my life, and I’ve often struggled to fit it into my day. I now go to the gym as soon as I wake up, and this is perfect since whatever chaos my day brings, I can almost always go to the gym before it starts.

Allow imperfection

Don’t worry if you miss days. It’s important to avoid guilt, and instead learn what is best for yourself and try again. It took some time, but I perform my ritual almost religiously now during the week. However, I don’t usually do it at the weekends. If I miss it one day, it is often due to being overwhelmed by everything that is going on. In those cases, I’ve found becoming consciously aware of the reason I’ve slipped out of my ritual, and then making a definite decision to start it again has allowed me to reduce the impact of stress.

I know that with the ritual, whatever chaos the day has brought, I can feel fresh the next day.

Do you have a ritual which helps you to sleep well and feel good each day? Do you think it is something you’d like to try? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simes

Steady yourself, those world-changing thoughts are not productive

Whilst building my latest startup, which I’m glad to say is picking up nicely, there have been times when things have started to go a little crazy. It might be being featured in a big blog, lots of tweets about us in a short space of time, a big influx of signups or a few consecutive people upgrading to a paid plan. When this happens, it is very easy for your thoughts to drift off and to start thinking of the bigger picture possibilities for the startup long into the future. I’ve realised that part of the process of an early stage startup is to steady yourself when those occasions arise, and to stay focused on the immediate tasks such as making sure customers are happy, improving the user experience or working on upcoming features.

Why do we start to “think big”?

I’ve been trying to think about why it is that these thoughts emerge especially at times when some “minor successes” occur. It seems that most of the time, it is a result of a chain of thoughts, each a step further than the previous. Before you know it, you’re thinking about how your startup is going to change the way something is done in a profound way. It often happens when you’re with someone else and neither of you stop the chain of thoughts. It may be healthy to be ambitious, but often these thoughts occupy more time than they should and stop us doing the real work we need to do to get anywhere near to those thoughts becoming reality.

Before conquering the world…

It is easy to look at the success stories of the world and think they started at the top. Let’s try and question that and think how all successful ventures or entrepreneurs started with something small. Facebook started just at Harvard. Google started as something used by just a few at Stanford.

Richard Branson may be trying to bring space travel to the masses with Virgin Galactic, but he started out with a magazine called Student. The spiral of success is what you should focus on - trust that with each achievement you will be more informed and better positioned to tackle the next, slightly bigger challenge. Don’t go for space travel right away. It took Branson 38 years.

My thinking here is reflected by Mark Suster who conveys a similar message very eloquently in his recent post titled Why Entrepreneurs & VCs Should Focus on Basecamp, Not the Summit.

Is it so bad to have ambitious thoughts?

I personally love to think big. It’s something I almost pride myself for - there is a lot I want to do, and I truly believe I will achieve it. I think it can be argued that it is healthy to have ambitious thoughts. Perhaps depending on the type of person you are, you either think big too much or you don’t think big enough. It is those of us who think big too much who need to pay attention to this the most. A certain amount is definitely healthy, but beyond a point it becomes a huge time sink, and could actually stop you reaching your goals.

How to steady yourself and keep moving forward

In the recent months, being able to become aware of when I have these world-changing thoughts and being able to stop them in their tracks before they stop me moving forward has been something I’ve found myself needing to do time and time again. This applies to everything, too - keeping your initial product minimal, going for smaller press before you’ve built up momentum, or even realising you can get started without waiting for perfect conditions.

Working with others can help a lot. I’ve been delighted to have a great pro-active friend join me with my latest venture. However, it is worth noting that if you’re working with someone else, one of you needs to stop those thoughts before they take up a lot of time. Inevitably the discussions start, and they’re fun, but then comes the time to get working again.

In the end though, no one else is going to do it for you - you need to stop thinking about changing the world, and do the nitty-gritty to get one step further. I’ll certainly need to come back to this article to remind myself.

Have you experienced a similar thing? How do you handle it? Is it really a bad thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo credit: Mr. T in DC

Exercise: a requirement for sleep?

Recently I have struggled to get to sleep at night. When I need to be up at 8 and working away on either my own projects or exciting client projects by 9 it is vital that I wake up refreshed and ready for a challenging day. So why am I having trouble sleeping?

Busy lifestyle pushes exercise aside

In the last few weeks I’ve found myself a lot busier than usual - client projects and multiple side projects of my own.

As a result, I’ve not been exercising as much as I usually do. I am now starting to think that exercise is not something that can take a lower priority when things get busy.

Tired?

I’m mentally drained from the day’s work, but physically I have just been sat at a desk all day and I have too much energy to fall asleep. This distinction is important. In order to sleep well, I am starting to realise I need to be both mentally and physically tired.

Does exercise have an impact?

After around a week and a half away from the gym, one evening I decided enough was enough and I went and swam 50 lengths. The result? I got back, went to bed at 10pm and I was asleep before I knew it, and slept right through. I felt refreshed and ready to get on with things again the next morning.

A simple search on Google reveals many results similar to this one:

Exercise is important for a healthy life. People who are physically fit have a better quality of sleep. A healthy body and a relaxed mind will increase your chances of being able to fall asleep and gain the benefits of a good night’s sleep.

Quality of sleep

That point could easily be overlooked in that last quote. It mentions quality of sleep. So what is quality of sleep? The way I see it, generally quality sleep is sleep when you’re not stressed. So in order to get quality sleep we need to feel we’re happy with what we’ve accomplished in the day - be it work or much needed renewal. Another component could be our environment - I live in central Birmingham and it can get noisy at times, though I don’t feel like this affects my sleep as much as the other factors.

Time to make a few changes

I think I need to get more exercise, otherwise this is going to become a real problem. It should be easier to motivate myself to exercise when I know that sleep, and ultimately my energy levels throughout each and every day as a result depend upon it.

How do I fit it in?

The only thing now is, how do I fit in the crucial exercise I need in order to fall asleep each night? Do I need to exercise every day, or will once every two days give me the chance to stretch myself physically enough in order to be able to put my head to the pillow without being awake for hours? I’m going to start off by trying to exercise every couple of days, alternating between cardio and weights as I have done in the past. I’ll probably write about how it goes soon.

Have you had trouble sleeping before due to not exercising? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Photo credit: Colton Witt