I have always struggled with productivity. I have energy, enthusiasm, ambition and an unrelenting desire to just sit in my pants silently eating crumpets. I am excellent at fighting fires, being reactive, being busy and quick. I was less good at quiet, calm, productive focus. I became so accustomed, through working in and running agencies, to feeling always a little stretched in terms of my to do list that I lost the ability to dedicate time and concentration to less immediate but albeit still essential areas like research, strategy and planning.
I have worked with dozens of businesses now in my capacity as a trainer and I know this tendency is not unique to me. We focus on the most angry clients, the most interesting campaigns or the most profitable projects, leaving essential elements like testing, planning and true creativity with little or none of our energy.
I think the way we manage our to do lists and define our focus is a problematic. We tend to prioritise in accordance with some externally defined criteria of importance and complete tasks in that order. I believe, rather than prioritising tasks in accordance with importance, we should prioritise them in accordance with mindset. Stay with me…for example, on my to do list in the past may have been tasks such as ‘pay invoices, read research on X, have a sales call etc’. However, all of these tasks require me to be in a fundamentally different headspace. I have to feel differently if I am trying to energetically sell on the phone or contemplatively learn something new.
Conflicting mindsets require grinding cognitive shifts that, in my subjective experience at least, create stress, inconsistency and a lack of reliable focus.
After spending years having to psychologically balance the need to be magnanimous at conferences, compelling on social media, reflective in meetings, empathetic with my team, detailed with my accountant I burnt out, exhausted and confused as to what exactly my day should look like for all of the varying requirements we face as individuals in businesses.
We miss out on opportunities by thinking that tasks are just tasks, rather than actions we complete that require us to feel specific things at specific times. Whether that’s focus for bug fixing or energy for team building, these tasks require mindsets.
Then it occurred to me to actively structure my work life around the different mindsets that are best suited to different tasks and it has transformed my way of working, positively impacting the quality of my work, my productivity, clarity and happiness. I began experimenting with grouping my tasks in this way and and I have three key mindsets.
This is very much an outward mindset. It’s where I focus on growing my business and revenue, through talks, marketing, networking and flogging shit on Instagram. This is more akin to a hustle (eurgh sorry) mindset. I have to feel energised, I have to feel enthused, I have to feel powerful, I have to feel resilient. To feel these big, energy intensive emotions, I have to have a certain routine to get me there. We all have the steps we take when we need to feel a little hyped. These routines tend to be quite personal, vulnerable and maybe a little bit embarrassing and perhaps involve power squatting in front of a mirror to Beyonce. Perhaps.
The problem being, is that I would have days where I would get myself in that mindset, then find my primary task of the day is to quietly tick off some invoice payments and write a blog post. That would feel jarring, a poor use of my energy and ultimately a little weird because I don’t think Beyonce uses Xero.
The grow mindset is the one I use for workshops, meetings, pitches and conferences. In this mindset I am a force, a powerhouse of a woman. Though I learnt after spending a summer persistently navigating through the world with a constant tight chest and dull sense of panic, that I cannot maintain that level of energy forever and that this mindset does not serve me in all areas of my work. This was a big lesson because I think the mistake businesses owners often mistake is the evangalisation of this mindset, rather than seeing it as an essential part of a bigger whole.
This is an inward looking mindset. It is idea generation, research, testing, reading. For me, this is reading dense recent research from organisational neuroscience to develop the training or writing my book. For a marketer, this may be testing some variables on some sites, reading industry whitepapers, taking some time alone to generate new ideas for clients. It is a slower, softer, creative pace, in which we are directing our energy inward, rather than outward. It is sitting quietly and seeing what new shit presents itself. As those of us who experience the phenomena of our best ideas happening in the shower, when walking the dog or just as we fall asleep, this quiet, reflective mindset is where those elusive brilliant ideas often present themselves.
We cannot be creative when we are in a grow mindset. It’s just not how our brains work. (If you’re interested more in our brains and creativity I spoke about it here).
This mindset, likewise, requires a different routine. A slow coffee, a morning walk, pen and paper instead of relentlessly beeping robot screens and the quiet reflection of Joni Mitchell, for example.
This for me, is also known as the “I have to do some shit I hate today day”. It is admin, finance, spreadsheets, the small bitty tasks that will, unless given dedicated space, remain clinging stubbornly to the bottom of our to do lists for eternity. I have my Manage days on Friday mornings, safe in the knowledge it will soon all be over. I listen to interesting podcasts by means of distraction and schedule calls with friends. I have, for the first time in my professional career, processes, an updated P&L that I actively engage with, robust financial targets and an understanding of like, business money babies aka investments. I achieved this not through scheduling it on my to do because this shit doesn’t work, but creating the appropriate mindset to make me marginally more enthused and motivated to do it. For me this is often spending the morning reading business literature and putting myself in the shoes of someone who can confidently and happily talk about EBITDA and actually knows what FTSE stands for and not simply that it sounds like an adorable little sock.
Whatever your job is, there are applications for you to start thinking about the different mindset you have to be in to deliver your best work. Perhaps you might consider scheduling all client calls on Mondays and Tuesdays and walk to work, head held high listening to Jay Z. Writing your company blog posts or thinking about new solutions on Wednesday where you slowly indulge in a coffee from your favourite coffee shop and stop to notice the sound of the leaves crunching under your feet and filling in your timesheets on a Friday morning listening to a comedy podcast and scraping your nails on the wall. (I hate timesheets FYI).
Someone asked me in a confidence workshop once whether I still felt self doubt and my answer was a resounding fuck yes. We are not always one thing. Sometimes I am soft, sensitive, calm and quiet and other times I am a raging lady bull ready to smash through the red flag of the patriarchy (?). Sometimes I am open and engaging, sometimes I am reflective and distant.
If we begin to work with our shifting moods rather than against them, I truly believe that’s where we can maximise our productivity, lower our stress levels, gain clarity and focus and feel better about our work and ourselves day to day.
If you need some help getting started, my DMs are always open. (I will reply on a Grow day which are Mondays and Tuesdays lol).