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What I do when I don’t know what to do

Back before the pandemic, when I ran out of steam sitting in my home office, I’d go somewhere else to work. Often that was a coffee shop, but sometimes it was the local library, or even the beach.

I don’t have the same flexibility now that it’s getting towards winter and we’re in the second Covid-related lockdown in the UK. So what is a remote worker to do when they’re feeling less motivated than usual?

Here’s three things that I do, just in case they’re useful for other people:

  1. Take a moment to reflectwhat’s going on? I’m not suggesting a full OODA loop, but I consider how I’m feeling and why I’m not getting on with stuff. Is it because I don’t have anything to do (unlikely!) or because I’m not sure how to do it, or something else?
  2. Gain claritycan I move somewhere else? I’ve realised that, pre-pandemic, moving physical location was a proxy for moving conceptual location. So can I go for a walk to figure things out? Or shut down something that is taking my attention (e.g. social network) and move it somewhere else (e.g. email/Slack)?
  3. Actwhat can I do? If there’s something that needs clarifying, I try to gain that clarity as soon as possible. If not, I have to decide how comfortable I am in sitting in the uncertainty. If that’s the case, instead of ruminating, I act, often by doing something else. Like writing this blog post!

This might seem like the world’s most obvious advice, but the first step is the most important. A healthy introspection helps me move from feeling stuck to understanding what’s going on, and then to action.


This post is Day 61 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Lying in bed with Marcus Aurelius and Mahatma Gandhi, thinking about work

When our kids reach their eighteenth birthday and start their foray into adulthood, I’m going to give them some books which have helped me in my adult life, and which I think will help them.

One of those books is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a relatively slim book which contains the wisdom of someone who was not only a Roman Emperor, but a Stoic philosopher.

I’ve written both here and elsewhere about how much value I get from reading Meditations on repeat along with other books like Baltasar Gracián’s The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence and Montaigne’s Essays. There are certain books that have layers of depth and meaning that it’s only possible to get to via repeated readings.

The thing I particularly like about the Meditations is that it was originally intended as a journal, as a series of exhortations by Marcus Aurelius to encourage himself to be a better person. As such, it doesn’t have a hypothetical audience, it has an audience of one. We’re merely literary voyeurs benefitting from his insights.

There are 12 books in the Meditations, and some sections are more heavily highlighted in my dead-tree version than others. There’s one bit, though, that’s always kind of baffled me.

At day’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that “I am rising for the work of man”. Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm? “Ah, but it is a great deal more pleasant!” Was it for pleasure, then, that you were born, and not for work, not for effort? Look at the plants, the sparrows, ants, spiders, bees, all busy with their own tasks, each doing his part towards a coherent world order; and will you refuse man’s share of the work, instead of being prompt to carry out Nature’s bidding? “Yes, but one must have some repose as well.” Granted; but repose has its limits set by nature, in the same way as food and drink have; and you overstep these limits, you go beyond the point of sufficient; while on the other hand, when action is in question, you so sorry of what you could well achieve.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 5

Perhaps it’s because we live easier lives in 2020 than they did a couple of millennia ago, but this passage doesn’t really speak to me. But I feel like it should.

Others point to it as motivation and inspiration to avoid the lie-in and get on with the day. Reader, I have never had that problem, apart from when I’ve been mentally or physically ill.

To me, motivation for work springs not from religion, or fear, or desire for glory, but, as Gandhi famously suggested, from a striving for the kind of happiness that can be achieved when “what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”.

That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. How about you?


This post is Day 52 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

New habits die easily

If “old habits die hard” then it would appear uncontroversial to state the obvious, that new habits die easily.

There’s different views on how long it takes to form a new habit, but, for some reason, 21 days seems to be a popular opinion. The trouble is, that it’s based on theory 1950s plastic surgeon who noticed that it took at least 21 days for a patient to get used to the result of their new post-surgery look.

It makes sense why the “21 Days” Myth would spread. It’s easy to understand. The time frame is short enough to be inspiring, but long enough to be believable. And who wouldn’t like the idea of changing your life in just three weeks?

James Clear, How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science)

Proper scientific research, carried out by Phillippa Lally and her team at UCL has shown that it can take a good deal longer than 21 days to form a new habit:

In my own life, I’ve found habit formation to be very easy for some things and very difficult for others. If we step back a bit and think about things, that’s exactly what we would expect. It’s easier to engrain a habit based on something positive that I’m doing and that I enjoy (e.g. going for a run) versus something negative that I feel I’m giving up (e.g. eating less ice-cream).

On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. 

In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life — not 21 days.

James Clear, How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science)

The other thing to point out here is the specificity of the habit being mentioned. For example, I use Loop Habit Tracker to keep track of a bunch of things from doing press-ups and sit-ups every morning through to not eating sugar on weekdays. It’s easy for me to give myself the weekend off doing my press-ups, or not counting certain types of sugar (e.g. fructose).

The thing is not to give up and to get yourself back on track. For example, this morning, I went on the exercise bike, did my press-ups and sit-ups properly and used a 24kg kettlebell to do some weights. I’m also about to go for a long walk so I get my 10,000 steps in for the day (although that’s also a problematic number).

Motivation around my physical health is high today, mainly because I took it easy at the end of last week as I felt a cold coming on. Tomorrow, who knows? The trick is to keep on the upward trajectory.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.

James Clear, How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science)

This post is Day 46 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Sounds from a #realworldhomeoffice

Every morning, I use an app on my smartphone called Brain.fm to get into the zone. In the afternoon, I switch to Spotify playlists that I find particularly helpful.

Check out the video below to find out more!

What do you use? Why?


This post is day seven of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

10 top email productivity tips

This morning, Robin Dewar, a freshly-minted supporter of my Thought Shrapnel newsletter, got in touch to ask me some advice. What article(s) should he point his team towards to help them improve their use of email?

I realised that there wasn’t one blog post to rule them all, so instead I took the opportunity to go back through relevant articles I’d saved to Pocket. I removed any that were vendor-specific (e.g. Google, Microsoft) and ones that included tips as part of a wider ‘make your life more productive’ article.

The result, which I’ll continue to add to, can be found on my wiki, divided into the following  sections:

  • In praise of email
  • Time management
  • Dealing with colleagues and bosses
  • Workflow
  • Security
  • Etiquette
  • Dealing with difficult emails
  • Misc.

All told, there’s almost 50 articles in there. I’ve chosen my top 10 tips to feature in this post:

1. Turn off notifications

It is absolutely ridiculous that we allow Outlook to check email every 5 minutes, allow our phone to get push messages, or keep a Gmail tab open all the time. This is absolutely killing us in terms of productivity. In 90% of all cases we don’t need to know immediately that there is a new message. Segmenting our email checking time into 2, 4, or 8 times a day has massive benefits. We greatly reduce task-switching penalties, and removing the alerts so we’re not tempted goes a huge way. (Joshua Lyman)

2. Prepare, but don’t send emails on Sunday evening

Sunday is definitely a day for relaxing, but if you’re often overwhelmed come Monday morning, logging in briefly Sunday evening may help you alleviate some of that Monday mania. You don’t need to make calls or even answer emails—simply assess what your Monday game plan will be, and you’ll sleep a little more soundly. (Inc. via Lifehacker)

3. Be concise

Write shorter emails. What is the 1 main thing you want to communicate? Say it concisely. The shorter your emails, the shorter their response tends to be. It saves everyone time. (George Kao)

4. Tell your boss what you’re going to do, and then what you’ve done

I’m convinced 95% of cubicle workers who work over 60 hours a week constantly can cut it down to 40-45 hours by sending 2 emails a week to their boss:

Email #1: What you plan on getting done this week

Email #2: What you actually got done this week

That’s it. These 2 emails will prevent you from working 60 hours a week, while improving your relationship with your boss and getting the best work you’ve ever done. (Robbie Abed)

5. Communicate facts by email and emotion face-to-face

…if you’ve got great news that will get everyone stoked up, it will be more effective and create more positive energy if you deliver it in person. A group meeting to announce a big sales win, for example, is like an instant celebration. By contrast, an email announcing the same win seems a bit like an afterthought. Similarly, if you’ve got bad news or criticism, it will be better received, and more likely to be helpful, if it’s delivered in person. If you use email, it will seem like you don’t care or that you’re cowardly.  (Lifehacker)

6. Have multiple channels to message people

Perhaps unsurprisingly, CEOs often point to Slack for helping them cut back on superfluous email back-and-forth so they can give priority to the fewer internal emails to do trade with their teams. Some execs recommend other tools for diverting conversations away from their inboxes, from video-conferencing system Zoom to project-management platforms like Wrike and Trello. (Fast Company)

7. Be positive

Be positive & friendly. Emails can quickly build, or erode, relationships. I always try to come across as encouraging and kind, and start or end my emails with something appreciative about the recipient or the situation. For example, “I appreciate your thoughtful message here.” or “Hoping the rest of your week goes well!” Think of the primary purpose of emails you write to be relational (improving trust and camaraderie in relationships) and secondarily transactional (asking/answering questions, proposing ideas, etc.) (George Kao)

8. Treat emails as if they’re postcards

We live in a time when hackers hack for no good reason whatsoever.  We also interact with other humans, who may accidentally stumble on an email left open or snoop because they suck at respecting privacy.  Whatever the case may be, when you write something you commit it to a nearly permanent record—at least, once you hit send.  If you don’t want other people to know your inner-most thoughts, think twice before sending them to someone.  You never know where they may end up. (Awkward Human)

9. Avoid techno-productivism

By focusing relentlessly on making specific tasks or operations easier and faster, instead of stepping back and trying to understand how to make an organization as a whole maximally effective, we’ve ended with a knowledge work culture in which people spend the vast majority of their time trying to keep up with the very inboxes, devices and channels that were conceived for the exact opposite purpose — to liberate more time for more valuable efforts. (Cal Newport)

10. Sign off with ‘thanks in advance’

Among closings seen at least 1,000 times in our study, “thanks in advance” ended up correlating with the highest response rate, which makes sense, as the email’s recipient is being thanked specifically for a response which has yet to be written. There’s a bit of posturing involved with this closing, but it turns out it works pretty well. But no matter how you express your thanks, doing so certainly appears to be your best bet in closing an email if you want a response. (Boomerang blog)

If you’re into upping your game around email-based productivity, you’re going to love my new audiobook. Thanks in advance for investing in it… 😉

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Chapter 5 of my new audiobook on productivity is now available!

I’m in the midst of creating an audiobook entitled #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity (v2). It’s a side project that I’m aiming to have finished by the end of this summer, so I’m pleased to announce another chapter is now available!

Chapter 5 focuses on something crucial to hit the higher echelons of productivity: Habits. In this chapter, we explore why habits are so important, and how to develop good ones. The idea is that you can finish listening and start implementing straight away!

As usual, I’m using my OpenBeta publishing model, meaning that this product will get more expensive as I add more content. The earlier you buy into the process, the cheaper it is! If you buy Chapter 5 now, I’ll send you every iteration until it’s finished.



Buy now for £5

(click the button to see the proposed chapter listing)


Need a sample? Here’s a two-minute intro:

Note: I’ll email existing backers and keep posting here when each new chapter is available. The ‘canonical’ page for this audiobook, however, is here. That will always be up-to-date!

Chapter 4 of my new audiobook on productivity is now available!

I’m in the midst of creating an audiobook entitled #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity (v2). It’s a side project that I’m aiming to have finished by mid-2017, and I’m pleased to announce another chapter is now available!

Chapter 4 focuses on something that many of us never feel as if we have enough of: Time. This chapter explores methods you can use which will allow you to do more of what you enjoy and value. The idea is that you can finish listening and start implementing straight away!

As usual, I’m using my OpenBeta publishing model, meaning that this product will get more expensive as I add more content. The earlier you buy into the process, the cheaper it is! If you buy Chapter 4 now, I’ll send you every iteration until it’s finished.



Buy now for £4

(click the button to see the proposed chapter listing)


Need a sample? Here’s a two-minute intro:

Note: I’ll email existing backers and keep posting here when each new chapter is available. The ‘canonical’ page for this audiobook, however, is here. That will always be up-to-date!

My Daily Routine

One of the books on my ‘daily reading’ list is Mason Currey’s fantastic Daily rituals : how great minds make time, find inspiration, and get to work. I implore you to buy a copy if you haven’t already. It’s ace.

Each entry by the author is a couple of pages about the kind of routine that people such as Virginia Woolf or Charles Darwin followed throughout their life. Sometimes this was an easy task for Currey, as the individual wrote specifically about their routine. Other time, it has taken painstaking research, putting together information for a number of sources.

Now, I’m no ‘great mind’, but I thought it might be interesting, if only for the sake of me looking back in a few years’ time, to do something similar. What follows is my daily routine when I’m working from home. This, I guess, is an update of my entry on My Morning Routine from around three years ago.


Like anyone who lives with their family, my daily routine is restricted to a great extent by various duties and constraints. I’m a morning person, so I’d actually like to get up earlier than I do. However, my wife is more of a night owl, so we settle somewhere in the middle.

Over the last couple of years, since becoming self-employed and having much more control over my working hours, I’ve come to realise that I work differently in the spring and summer months than in autumn and winter. I’m a lot more gregarious and outgoing during the former, while I’m more reclusive and introverted. Also, the additional sunlight means I tend to need less hours sleep and, for some reason, makes me want to swim more. I’ve come to divide my year by the spring and autumn equinoxes, so I’m very much looking forward to next week, when I’ll start swimming again, put away my SAD light and generally be in a more positive frame of mind.

I wake up at around 06:00 in the spring and summer, and later (usually 06:30) in the autumn and winter, using my Lumie Sunrise alarm clock. Being woken by light is much better than being woken by noise. I lie in bed and do my daily reading — a mixture of books like Daily Rituals but also some Stoic philosophy and other things that put me in the right frame of mind for the day.

Then, I get up, say good morning to my children, and take them downstairs for breakfast. They have a routine to do before school that includes piano practise, either Khan Academy or Duolingo, and getting themselves ready for school. I see my job as making sure they’re in a good mood. That takes varying amounts of effort depending on their emotional temperature. During this time I catch up with Twitter, scan my emails, say good morning to the We Are Open co-op Slack channel, and read the news headlines.

I’m the last to get ready, having a quick cold shower, doing my press-ups and sit-ups, and then heading downstairs. I have a crazy mix of stuff in my breakfast smoothie, and then walk my daughter to school with my wife (if she’s not at work). This is one of the highlights of my day.

I take my gym stuff, and head straight from dropping her off to do either my arms, legs, or cardio. If it’s spring/summer, and depending what day it is, I’ll go home straight away and go swimming at lunchtime. Once I’m at home, depending on how ‘bitty’ the things are that I have to do, I’ll either use my Trello board directly, or have already transferred things to my daily planner while my children are eating breakfast.

My use of coffee is strategic. I don’t use it to wake myself up, but to ensure I’m at peak productivity between 10am and 12pm. Sometimes, if I’m lacking motivation, I’ll head to the local coffee shop to work, paid for by the kind people who donate in appreciation of my weekly newsletter. Otherwise, I’m in my home office, which is separate to our house and complete with standing desk, or upstairs in a weird little cubby hole we created when converting our loft.

I work for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. By ‘work’, I mean write, think, plan, and make. I don’t count meetings and replying to email as work. While it’s important for me to meet people online, especially as I live up in Northumberland, I limit these conversations to 30 minutes wherever possible.

My time is precious. Four hours of solid knowledge work is what I aim for each day as research backs up my theory that this is optimal. I feel sorry for people who work in offices who have long commutes each way, have to spend time maintaining relationships with colleagues they don’t particularly like, and in meetings that are a waste of time.

When my wife and I are both at home, we have lunch together and do the crossword in The i newspaper (to which we subscribe). I will usually have an omelette or scrambled eggs with some turmeric mixed in. I’m fussy about the eggs we buy.

If I get my four hours of work done while my children are at school, then I go to pick up my daughter and talk with her about what we’ve been up to since we last saw each other. My son walks to and from school by himself now he’s in middle school. They have a snack and then go and play on their tablets (usually) or make/draw stuff (sometimes).

On the days I don’t get my four hours in while the children are at school, I use this time to get up to an hour’s extra work in. Otherwise, I’m just reading, catching up with email, or doing a bit of housework. Just as when I was at Mozilla, the time when most people want my attention is between 16:00 and 17:00, as most people in my network are online, from the Pacific timezone where people are just starting work, through to Europeans who are just clocking off.

After that, it’s preparations for the various activities my children do (football, swimming, Scouts, piano, dance, golf, etc.) and dinner. I’m trying to cook once per week at the moment to improve my skills in that area. Our six year-old daughter goes in the shower and then to bed around 19:00, and our ten year-old son does the same about half an hour later. They both are read to, and then read themselves. I’m particularly enjoying reading and discussing each short chapter of A Little History of Philosophy with our eldest.

I don’t work in the evenings, unless I absolutely have to. For some reason, it gets me down, and makes me resent what I’m working on. I don’t count recording the TIDE podcast with Dai Barnes as ‘work’ as it’s more of a conversation with a friend that happens to be made available to others. The evening is the time of the day that it’s hardest for me to obey my self-imposed rules of no sugar and no alcohol during the working week. So I tidy up, perhaps play some FIFA, do some more reading, and get myself ready for bed.

I’ve learned from experience how important rituals and routines are to my productivity. Every evening I have a really hot shower, which lowers my core body temperature, ready for sleep. I lie in bed, reading until my wife comes to bed. We talk, we both read, and then (usually about 22:30, but sometimes 23:00) the lights go off and I fall asleep quickly.

Cross-posted to Medium. Image: Loic Djim


I’m currently putting together an audiobook on productivity called #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity. You can buy it now for a reduced price, and you’ll get updates for free until it’s finished!

Chapter 3 of my new audiobook on productivity is now available!

I’m right in the middle of creating an audiobook entitled #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity (v2). It’s a side project that I’m aiming to have finished by mid-2017. I’m pleased to announce another chapter is now available!

Chapter 3 is concerned with the third of the three ‘pillars’ of productivity: Exercise. This chapter explains why exercise is crucial to a holistic and sustainable system of productivity. You should be able to finish listening and start implementing straight away!

As usual, I’m using my OpenBeta publishing model, meaning that this product will get more expensive as I add more content. The earlier you buy into the process, the cheaper it is! If you buy Chapter 1 now, I’ll send you every iteration until it’s finished.



Buy now for £3

(click the button to see the proposed chapter listing)


Need a sample? Here’s a two-minute intro:

Note: I’ll email existing backers and keep posting here when each new chapter is available. The ‘canonical’ page for this audiobook, however, is here. That will always be up-to-date!

Chapter 2 of my new audiobook on productivity is now available!

I’m in the midst of creating an audiobook entitled #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity (v2). Many thanks to those who have already bought the book as soon as it was released. I’m pleased to announce another chapter is now available.

Chapter 2 is concerned with one of the three ‘pillars’ of productivity: Nutrition. This chapter is full of actionable insights and you should be able to stop listening and start implementing straight away!

As usual, I’m using my OpenBeta publishing model, meaning that this product will get more expensive as I add more content. The earlier you buy into the process, the cheaper it is! If you buy Chapter 1 now, I’ll send you every iteration until it’s finished.



Buy now for £2

(click the button to see the proposed chapter listing)


Need a sample? Here’s a two-minute intro:

Note: I’ll email existing backers and keep posting here when each new chapter is available. The ‘canonical’ page for this audiobook, however, is here. That will always be up-to-date!

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