(Long one, today. I didn’t plan on it, but here we are. )
I’ve been asked a couple of time how I manage to do so much. If I look at what I produce each week, it adds up:
- Ask Leo! Articles, Videos, direct answers, and Newsletter
- Not All news is Bad
- 7 Takeaways
- My personal blog and 65 Thoughts
- My volunteer work
- An assortment of other things
Even considering all that I don’t accomplish every week even if I’m supposed to (my wife has that list), it’s still quite a lot.
The answer to the question turned out to be longer than I expected. I have a combination of frameworks, routines, habits, tools, and mindset that are probably pretty unique to me. While I pay attention to a lot of “productivity porn”, as it’s sometimes called, I think I’ve ended up with a blend of approaches that work fairly well for me.
I don’t expect they’ll work for everyone. But let’s look at how I do what I do hoping you might find a nugget or two that resonates and can help you get s**t done.
There are two things that drive my day and help me get so much done. Meditation is one, and I’ll talk about that later when I describe my mornings.
The other is accountable deadlines, but not in the traditional way.
The word “accountable” is important. We all set deadlines in our heads, or even in some kind of journal or task tracking app, if we use those. We also all routinely ignore or postpone those deadlines. Happens to me all the time.
We get into the habit because it’s easy, and we’re the only one that saw the deadline in the first place. No one has to know that we changed, slipped, ignored, or deleted it.
The conventional response to this is to make your deadline public. Fair enough. People will make the deadline visible to their spouses, a key friend, a mastermind group, or perhaps an accountability partner. These are all great ways to go if they work for you.
They do not work for me. I have too great a fear of commitment and am too much of an introvert to want to directly involve others in my struggles.
Ironically, my solution is to make my commitment to a much larger audience of people I don’t know.
It’s called a newsletter. It’s the best accountable deadline I know of. Ask Leo!, for example, has published 931 weekly (and for a while, twice-weekly) issues without a miss since 2005. That means I had to generate content every week. I had to write articles every week. I had to answer questions every week. And, in recent years, I had to record videos every week.
The weekly newsletter is the secret engine behind Ask Leo!.
Yes, there’s a spreadsheet of what’s being published when (not a plan or editorial calendar, but rather a record of where in the process articles are in the time between creation and publication), and yes, I have help, both editorial and mechanical, but the bottom line is I Must Create to keep that engine running.
Five years ago I was depressed and deeply concerned about the flood of negative news hitting our electronic doorstops. The inflammatory, world-is-ending stuff that social media and today’s news media thrive on.
I knew good news was out there. So I decided to look for something good every day. For grins, I started sharing what I found on social media. Then I realized: I needed an accountable deadline so that I would be required to look for something good Every Day.
Not all News is Bad was born. Every day I look for something good. I now have a curated list of places that are feeding me a constant stream of positive stories. Each day I pick one and add it to Not All News is Bad. Each day it goes out in an email to my subscribers.
65 thoughts followed the same process.
I wanted to do “something” for my 65th birthday. I’d done lists of things in the past, which have been absolutely fascinating to look back on, but I wanted to do something different. Something bigger. I decided to leverage my daily writing habit. I warned the subscribers to my personal blog that things were about to get busy.
The personal blog has always had an email list associated with it, so I took that as a newsletter, of sorts. Not only did I warn people that things were about to get busy, but that I would be publishing something daily for the 65 days leading up to my birthday.
In other words, I made a public commitment to ~200 people.
It got the job done. 65 essays, scheduled out over 65 days. I leveraged technology to schedule things in advance, so I actually began the process earlier, but regardless, it was that commitment that had me complete the task.
I don’t know that a public commitment, or a newsletter, is right for everyone. Certainly, the common advice was not right for me. And this doesn’t work for every type of project, I get that. But in realizing what was working for me already (the Ask Leo! newsletter) I could leverage a framework I was already familiar with to “encourage” me to get something significant done.
An orderly start
It all starts in the morning. I know many productivity people, as well as many productive people, swear by having a specific morning routine that they follow. This isn’t that, not really. I won’t swear by it, but it’s something I sort of fell into rather than designed.
Here’s how it works:
I get up somewhere between 7 and 8, at the dog’s urging. I take a quick peek for emergencies in email, put on clothes, and take the dogs out. They do their thing; we come back in. I start the coffee and I feed the dogs.
Everything so far is, as far as I can tell, completely unrelated to productivity, except that it’s a habit; a routine; a ritual, even.
The next part of that routine is where my day truly starts.
I meditate for at least 10 minutes. I set a timer, but it’s about the time it then takes the coffee to finish brewing. When I’m done, I grab my coffee and head for my desk.
That meditation has become a crucial part of my day would have surprised me 20 years ago. I don’t have a reason for it being so important other than this: empirically it’s been my experience that I am much more focused on days I meditate than on days I do not. It’s really that simple. I’ve tested it, and for me there’s a strong correlation. That’s all I needed to make meditation a part of my daily routine.
A couple of minor secrets to my practice: I started meditating in 2008 with the book “8 Minute Meditation“. It was a secular approach that just made sense for me. I’ve used many apps over the years, Headspace probably for the longest. Now I’ll either use a periodic chime timer, or just a silent timer, for the duration I select.
One thing that not everyone will agree with is that I have a voice recorder running throughout my meditation. My biggest fear is that I will think of something and forget it. The admonition to “let it go, it’ll come back” never holds true for me. So I simply speak it out loud, and it’s recorded. Some day’s there’s nothing. Some days I’ll have an idea or a to-do item that I then later transcribe.
Some days, like today, I’ll have the structure of an article or writing piece — the beginning structure of this article came to me while meditating this morning.
By knowing it’s been captured, I really can let go and return my focus to the object of my meditation more successfully.
Getting more random
The basics above get taken care of pretty much as written, pretty much every day. Of course, there are exceptions, since life sometimes throws curveballs, but it’s what I aspire to, each morning.
What happens next seems somewhat more chaotic, and counter-intuitive to most productivity folks. In no particular order:
- My daily reading (typically a short item from The Daily Stoic).
- Zipping through my email, getting to inbox zero on my two primary accounts (personal and work).
- Reviewing and possibly responding to any comments left at Ask Leo!, or the Ask Leo! YouTube channel.
- Reviewing and possibly answering questions submitted on the Ask Leo! website.
- Locating a new entry for Not All News is Bad.
- Writing a new entry for 7 Takeaways.
What’s common among those tasks is that they’re generally also short(ish). I try to do as many of them as I can before my wife gets up. Those that I don’t get done as filler tasks throughout the day.
Then, I exercise. My goals for physical exercise are:
- Minimum 5 days a week. I plan on 7, but 5 is an acknowledgement that life happens and sometimes the right thing to do it skip it.
- Duration of 30minutes minimum, 45 ideally, and 60 if at all possible.
Of late it’s been 45 minutes on an elliptical, and then 15 on a stationary bicycle, as I try to ensure my endurance for bike riding in The Netherlands coming up.
I must be distracted to exercise. I hate it, so my mind has to be elsewhere. I’ll watch TV shows, online courses, listen to podcasts, or listen to audiobooks. Which I’ll choose changes almost daily with my mood.
Ask Leo! content creation
In general, I write a week’s worth of Ask Leo! articles on Monday or Tuesday. That includes both new content, updates to old content, and five new or updated “Tip of the Day” entries. Sometimes it’s Monday and Tuesday. Sometimes it’s Monday through Thursday. But those articles are some of the highest priority items on my to-do list, so I try to get them done as early in the week as possible.
I also record a week’s worth of videos, sometimes batching two weeks worth, on Saturday, though sometimes earlier if I’m a little ahead.
And, as always, since I’m generally working 2-3 weeks ahead, I have a lot of flexibility as life intrudes. As I write this, I’m actually four weeks ahead, so that I can skip it all while I take an eight-day trip overseas.
Regardless, when it comes to writing new content, focus is key. I can close the door to my office, for example, to reduce interruptions. I don’t use any focus tracking or focus-forcing software, I just make sure that distractions aren’t visible on my screen. F11 can be a great help.
I find updating many older articles more akin to editing than actual writing, so the barrier to distractions and interruptions is lower.
But the most important thing to make all these specific items happen each week is my to-do list.
A tool I use
So far I’ve listed a lot of things that almost fall into the category of “administrivia”, and includes many things that are easy to forget.
Conceptually, I use a very simple solution: A to-do list.
Specifically, I found that Todoist fits the way I think the best. Many of the things I’ve talked about so far are on the list as happening every day. So, every day I get the pleasure of checking them off my list as I get them done, and seeing the list get shorter.
I’ve been through many iterations of task-list keeping tools, and Todoist is, by far, the most comfortable for me. It models the way I was already thinking before I started using it. That makes it easier to stick to using the tool effectively.
Managing the incoming flood
There are two things I use to manage the flow of incoming information: email newsletters and RSS feeds.
Besides the two email accounts I already mentioned, I have a specific email account I use for as many of my newsletter subscriptions as I can. I also read that email using a separate email program rather than having it all bundled in with my normal email and tools. I can batch my reading as I see fit, and when reading, not be distracted by the most recent fire to land in my “real” inbox.
I use RSS, via Feedly, to track many websites without subscribing to newsletters. This allows me to be even quicker when scanning the latest posts. Typically, I’ll use RSS feeds for sites that don’t have newsletters, or sites who are too aggressive with their newsletters. I’ll also use it for sites where I’m extremely likely to just mark all as read when I run out of time. My RSS feeds include news, tech support, humor, blogs, and my own sites.
I forget stuff. And I suspect that’s not something that’s going to improve over time. Thus, taking notes is pretty important.
I use Google Recorder on my phone (or otter.ai on other devices). I record a voice note to myself. The audio is saved, of course, but it’s also transcribed into text, and the combination uploaded automatically. At least once a day I review the notes that have accumulated — often just copy/pasting the text into Todoist, adding things like dates and priorities, or copy/pasting into my more general note collection (in Obsidian) for possible use later.
Note taking is important, not just because it helps remember things, but it also frees the mind from having to dwell on things for fear of forgetting. It’s why I have the recorder going while I meditate.
Automation and shortcuts
Not surprisingly, I’m a fan of automation and using technological shortcuts where they make sense.
One good example is Not All News is Bad (NANIB). While my goal is to find and read something positive every day, I wanted to make sure that the mechanics of then posting it would not become a burden. As a result, I made some choices.
NANIB is a WordPress site (like most all my sites). This, alone, eliminates much of the heavy lifting in setting up a website. There are still choices to be made that can impact just how painful life will be.
I chose a very simple theme. The goal here wasn’t to be super pretty or fancy, just look acceptable. It’s using the Genesis Framework with News Pro child theme. (I’d probably use GeneratePress if I were starting over today.)
I decided not to spend much time on SEO or other embellishments. Images, for example, rarely have descriptions.
I use an extension called “Press This” which takes a URL of a web page — a good news story in my case — and in a single click creates a draft post on the NANIB blog, which I tweak just a little, and schedule.
I try to run a couple of days ahead, though I’ll sometimes make that much longer if I’m heading into a particularly busy time. That means I can ignore NANIB for days at a time without missing a day. Similarly, if I run into several worthy stories in a short period of time, I can queue them all up at once.
The NANIB newsletter that comes out daily is an automation. My email service is configured to watch for new posts on the blog, and then automatically email the latest out. NANIB posts are also automatically sent to social media, and to its Telegram channel (using IFTTT).
The same is true for most of my projects. At a minimum there’s a lot of advance scheduling, and often other technologies involved in making things just happen with a minimum of additional work.
I don’t work alone
There are a collection of things involved with Ask Leo!, specifically, and HeroicStories, that require a human touch. As a result, for well over a decade, I’ve had help: four part-time contract assistants taking on various roles.
I think the longest relationship might be with my traditional VA. She handles several customer support issues that I can then side-step, as well as some internal administrative tasks. In years past she’s helped me arrange some of my travel, and more.
I have two “technical assistants”. I hired both to be my first line of defense against repetitive, or stupid, questions and comments. Most of the questions are legit, and at worst expose a lack of knowledge rather than stupidity, but every once in a while some rando throws in meaningless, intentionally stupid, and time wasting questions. Similarly, while I have multiple admonitions on the website to search first, many people clearly do not. When they’re not filtering questions no one needs to see, or comment spam on Ask Leo!, they’re act as glorified search engines pointing people to answers already on the site. (To be fair, it’s hard to find what you’re looking for when you don’t know the correct terms to use.)
The role has expanded to include my handing off video editing and posting to an assistant. That’s a huge timesaver for me.
If you’ve noticed my writing getting better slowly over recent years, it’s because I also have an editor. Every article gets reviewed, tweaked, and, in many cases, feedback makes its way back to me for improved clarity, or issues with my writing. I’ve often said my editor makes me look like a better writer than I truly am. (FWIW, my personal blog is all on me, only Ask Leo! and HeroicStories posts get this level of treatment.)
Finally, HeroicStories is handled almost entirely by one of my assistants. Since we’re working with a backlog of 800+ stories, her job is to schedule, format, and coordinate recording the podcast audio for each. My role is generally just approving any new submissions we get, as well as reviewing comments left on the site.
One take wonder?
When I decided I wanted to do videos for Ask Leo! I decided I wanted to want to do them. By that, I mean I didn’t want the process to become so painful that I’d resist and eventually quit.
One of the “rules” I set for myself is simple: do it in one take. And, aside from a handful that had technical issues (turns out it’s important to turn on the mic), I’ve now done several hundred videos just like that.
Put stuff on camera and/or screen. Hit record. Talk, demonstrate if appropriate, stop.
That’s the video I then send on to my assistant to edit and add graphics, intros and outros.
Now, let me be clear, it’s not one continuous take. I often stop, stumble, restart a sentence or a segment. But the idea — the goal — is “hit record – record – hit stop – done”.
And I can now usually knock off 4 average Ask Leo! videos in under an hour using this technique.
Here’s the catch, though: it took practice. Honestly, hundreds of videos worth of practice. Each recording session gets a little easier. It’s almost second nature now.
There’s also no script. It’s akin to Toastmasters “table topics” where you’re given a topic you then need to talk about for 2 minutes. The difference is I have the original article for reference and structure, so I hit the important points, and of course I’m already familiar with the subject. I just talk, and usually for well over 2 minutes.
It’s a great exercise for honing that very skill: being able to talk about something more-or-less spontaneously.
Again, what matters most, and what’s brought me to the productive point I’m at, is practice.
Lots of practice.
I’m unique, just like everyone else
This isn’t a process I designed. It’s a process that evolved. There are various activities on the virtual cutting room floor that didn’t work out. Perhaps because they weren’t “fun” enough for me, perhaps because they took too much time, perhaps for some other reason.
There are plenty of additional things I want to do and projects I’d love to take on. The “trick” will be to continue to evolve my process to make those things fun, and as natural as possible, without an excessive impact on my schedule.
I’m not saying that any of this is right for you if you’re looking to increase your productivity and output. But I hope that some things I’ve shared are things you might use, or tailor to your own particulars, to not just produce lots of good work, but enjoy the journey along the way.
Every day is an experiment, and nowhere is that more clear than in the process I use to get all this s**t done.