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"Secrets of Productive People"

Product DetailsSecrets of Productive People is my latest book - and if you haven’t read it yet then you should!

The book has:

1 Introduction
5 Parts
8 five-star reviews on
50 secrets
150 strategies
250 quotes from the masters
78,000+ words

You will find just about all my current time management teaching in it. But it’s about a lot more than time management. The emphasis is on productivity - and time management is dealt with as part of that wider context.

Here are the five parts of the book:

The Basics of Productivity

The Productive Attitude

Productive Work

Aids to Productivity

Productivity in Action



What are the 50 secrets of productive people that the rest of us should know?
Some books promise a lot but fall down because they are hard to use in your daily life. This book works by boiling down the essentials of productivity into short, quick lessons that you can apply instantly. Every one of the 50 secrets in this book contains 3 strategies you can put into practice right now. These are the real productivity tips you need to get ahead.

Ready to Learn the Secrets of Productive People?
Who are the most productive figures in the course of human history? Isaac Newton? Vincent van Gogh? Henry Ford? You will almost certainly find that the names you think of have made a real and measurable difference to the world, usually for the better. They will be people of great achievements and who have made the world gasp in amazement.

You probably cannot imagine yourself in your wildest dreams being productive in the way that they were productive. And you are probably right - you are never going to equal their achievements in their own fields.

But how about in your own field?

Can you apply the principles that they used, consciously or unconsciously, to your own work, your own lifetime passion, or even to your leisure time, so that you produce results that are every bit as amazing to you yourself, your colleagues, your customers, clients, friends and family, as their results were to the world at large?

Surprisingly, the answer is almost certainly ‘Yes, you can’
You can change your brain in order to change your abilities. That is precisely what lies at the basis of the sort of productivity that Newton, Van Gogh and Ford exhibited. What they did was to grow their brains to fit their area of productivity.

You can do exactly the same. This book will show you how


Effect on the Brain

In a comment I wrote:

“I’ve experimented with one day dismissal a lot. In fact the system I’m using at the moment, which is proving incredibly effective, is a one day dismissal system.

“My tip would be to forget the bit about being catch-all as well. I feed each day’s sheet through the shredder as soon as the day is over. The effect on one’s brain is quite remarkable.”

Seraphim asked:

“Could you elaborate on this a bit more? I am intrigued.”

What is the effect of feeding each day’s sheet through a shredder?

First of all, it brings about a sense of completion. The next day starts with a clean sheet with nothing left over from the day before. Whatever work you were engaged in has to be re-created.

Your mind is not however re-creating the work from scratch. During each day paths in the brain are either strengthened, amended or abandoned. This means that one’s work is always alive, relevant and creative.

This is a contrast to working off an old list, where creativity consists only in writing down yet more tasks on the list without actually taking action on them.

Let’s compare the thinking and action that goes with “catch all” and “no list” methods, which are the two extremes of continuing and one-day lists.

Catch all

The simplest type of catch-all system is where you just have an open list of tasks and circulate through it, doing the tasks that feel ready to do. At the beginning of each day what you are presented with is usually a long list which has been built up over a period of time, a matter of days, weeks or in some cases even months. At some stage you thought of a task and wrote it on the list. It may get done quickly, but a large number of these tasks will hang around on the list for days.

What your mind therefore has to do is to choose between anything up to 100 or more tasks - all of which you thought were a good idea at some stage in the past. You can only do one of these tasks at a time and very likely while you are doing that task even more are being added.

Your main motivation is to get rid of the tasks on the list. This of course can never actually be done so you always end the day with much the same number of tasks as you began it - frequently more.  Because you have such a large number of tasks to choose from your focus is poor and it’s difficult to build up good routines.


The simplest form of no-list system is just to write down the next thing you are going to do before you do it. The act of writing down the next action forces you to make a conscious decision about what to do, rather than just drift into something.

Your mind has no list to rely on, so what sort of tasks is it going to choose? It will probably come up with one of the following;

  • The next task in an established routine
  • Something that is on your mind because you are currently working on it
  • A project you have previously decided will be your main focus for the day
  • An urgent project or task
  • Something which is causing you concern because it is overdue or in danger of becoming so
  • Something you make a conscious decision to do because you want to do it

Note that all these things relate to what matters at the moment. Your concern is with what you are actually involved in. At the end of the day you will have filled the day with stuff that is actually relevant and is within your capabilities to do in the time available.

Your brain therefore will be concentrated on the immediate reality of what is in your life, rather than diffused over a vast sea of possibilies, most of which will never happen.


See also:

An Effective No List System? - Yes!

Why No-List Systems Work


Any special recommendations for teachers? (Reader's query)

Sandy writes:

What do you suggest for teachers with only 1½ hours of “focused” work time during the day?  Yes, we work more than that when we go home.  But the rest of our daily schedule is in class which requires an immediate response time.  And, while we are in class, the todo list is quickly turning from active to backlog.

The 1.5 hours are spent doing tasks that must be done at school or during the day, ie calling parents, making copies, setting up for class, lesson planning.

My schedule is tight and creativity occurs sporadically. But it is so important to find ways to be innovative in the classroom.

In my answer I’ll concentrate on the 1½ hours that Sandy has during the school day. How can she ensure that what needs doing gets done?
The things Sandy mentions in her email that she needs to do in this time are:
  • Calling parents
  • Making copies
  • Setting up for class
  • Lesson planning
  • Creativity

Since I don’t expect she has covered everthing and in any case there will always be unforseeable calls on her time, I’ll add another category - “Miscellaneous Tasks”

That means that she has an average of 15 minutes per category. How can she make the most of this?

This sort of concentrated period of time cries out for a routine to be established. If she does this, it will help her to avoid wasting time or getting distracted. Time is tight and anything wasted will be difficult to catch up with.

The more invariable this routine can be made the better.

So what I would advise is to arrange the tasks in their order of priority, which at a guess I would say is:

  • Setting up for class
  • Making copies
  • Calling parents
  • Lesson planning
  • Creativity
  • Miscellaneous tasks

She gets the preparations for the next class out of the way first so that she doesn’t have them hanging over her.

She probably already knows what needs doing under each heading except “Miscellaneous Tasks”. I suggest she makes a Dynamic List for that. “Creativity” needn’t take long if she uses one of the Questioning techniques I recommend.

Another advantage of a routine is that it gives a good basis for weeding activities if Sandy consistently fails to reach the end of the routine in 90 minutes. It’s all the time she has, so it’s essential that the routine is pared down to the minimum.


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February 2016

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January 2016

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Setting up systems (Reader's Query)

Kenny writes:

If you’re up for another article my next question would be the idea of systems and how you go about setting them up and their power. At the moment I’m working on creating systems in my life to make me more effective and efficient in my life.

There’s a good example of how to set up a new system in my earlier post What stops me from finding things quickly?

If you’re having problems with an existing system, then the first step is to examine it to see where it’s going wrong. So for instance to stop yourself from losing things the first step would be to look at what you are doing at the moment when you put things down.

My speciality is losing my glasses. When I look at what’s happening, what am I doing? I put them down anywhere without really thinking about it, And they frequently get covered by clothing, papers or files so that they can’t be seen.

This is a very simple example and more complicated systems will of course take longer. Nevertheless the basic procedure remains the same.

Ideally you should have systems ready before you need them, rather than try to put them right after they are causing problems.

As far as daily routines are concerned a “no list” system will naturally lead you into effective routines because your mind will naturally follow paths that have proved successful. For instance my routine for writing blog posts evolved effortlessly just by making small amendments to the same repealed sequence of actions each day.


An Effective "No List" System? Yes!

You may recall that in my article about what is required in an effective “no list” system I said that I was in the process of developing a new time management system based on the “no list” method. I reported that I had got as far as the following:

Re-entering tasks. I’ve solved the problem of multiple re-entered tasks.

Simple to work. Yes.

Urgent stuff. Not as good as I’d like. This is the main failing, though I don’t want to give the impression that it makes the system unworkable - far from it.

Keeping the list short. The list is always kept short and  relevant throughout the day.

Getting tasks done. All unfinished tasks get worked on multiple times during the day.

Remembering tasks. I’ve solved the problem of multiple task entry.

Not deceiving yourself. Absolutely ideal for monitoring exactly how much you have succeeded in doing during a day.

I was in fact satisfied with everything except how the method dealt with urgent tasks. I’m pleased to say that I’ve now solved that problem too.

Using the system (including even its imperfect state) I have now blogged for 17 continuous days, set up a Facebook page, replied to 52 comments within a few hours at most, initiated reader’s questions, and advanced many things in my private life - all without any resistance or procrastination.

All I’ve got to do now is to work out how to make lots of money out of it!



See also:

Why No-List Systems Work


What stops me from finding things quickly?

A question from Will:

“What stops me from finding things quickly?

I’m looking forwards to finding out what my answer to this question will be because I spend my life losing things!

So, as I don’t have any ready-made answers, I am going to have to go through the procedure outlined in Secrets of Productive People for finding answers to questions like this. So I start by writing “Finding things?” at the top of a new note in Evernote.

These are my first day’s thoughts:

Don’t lose them in the first place!
A place for everything and everything in its place
Knowing what to do with everything
Put things down mindfully
Keep a record of where you put important things

And my second day’s thoughts:

Electronic tagging
Tidying as a frequently recurring task
Routines, e.g. empty pockets when hanging up garments
Regular emptying of briefcase, handbag, etc.

Inspired by these thoughts, I am going to start taking some action. I think the key to this is tidiness, making sure that everything is in its place. That will definitely require some sorting first, but once I’ve got things sorted, I need to tidy several times a day. This basically consists of putting things back where they came from, with the result I hope that it will be much more difficult to mislay things, plus those articles which are in the wrong place will stand out.

There are some places where stuff tends to accumulate and remain hidden. These are places such as briefcases, pockets, handbags, backpacks and so on. I will institute a habit of emptying them out whenever I’ve used them.

[As well as “things” which get lost, there’s also a problem with paper. I already scan all of the paper I can into Evernote and I make sure it’s tagged so I can find it again. I have a clear filing system for everything that can’t be scanned. I also save webpages I want to be able find again to Evernote.]

If I didn’t have to have this post ready for today, I’d probably have done at least one more day of questioning.


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My Book Challenge - Update

After eleven days how far have I got with my challenge to read only one book at a time? Well, I’ve stuck to the rule with Andrew Roberts Napoleon the Great, but progress has been slow. This is partly due to the fact that the book is much longer than I expected it to be, but also because it is very detailed and dense. It is most emphatically not the sort of book one can read as a novel!

I’m now on page 132, which is a bit over eleven pages a day. I’ve read roughly 46,000 words - about the length of The Great Gatsby, which I read last year and, as far as I can remember, took me only three or four days to read.

I’m beginning to think that it would make more sense to have one fast book and one slow book going at a time, rather than just one book. I don’t think this would necessarily make the slow book go any slower. The trouble is that most of the books I want to read are slow books!


Why "no list" systems work

Why do “no list” systems work, in spite of all our fears that we are going to miss something important?

And come to that why does a “no list” list work better than just not having a list at all?

I’m no psychologist, but my observations of myself, clients and the reported experiences of people writing in the forums on this site lead me to think that our minds like things like this:

  • routines.
  • tasks which they know how to do
  • questions - just so long as they don’t feel under pressure to find a “right” answer
The sort of things our minds don’t like on the other hand are:
  • unfinished tasks
  • feeling out of their depth
  • having to work for too long on one thing

They like freedom

They like to be challenged but not overwhelmed

They like building connections

They avoid things which they are afraid of, and they are afraid of being taken out of their comfort zones.

The very worst thing you can do with your mind is to overwhelm it with a huge list of stuff to do with not enough time to do it. This results in resistance and avoidance, either by giving up altogether or working on trivial stuff.

On the other hand the best thing you can do with your mind is to let it get on with what it wants to do but record it so it can see and learn. Your mind loves building things and it loves progressing things.

A “catch all” system always ends by either building resistance to the list, or by processing endless amounts of trivia.

A “no list” system on the other hand concentrates on what you are actually involved in, and because you are actively involved in the work your mind works with enthusiasm. And because the system actively constructs the list of what you have done, your mind is able to learn and adjust for maximum creativity.


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More about "No List" Systems

“Any system that lets you wallow in the fantasy that one day you’ll get it all done isn’t just useless but dangerous, lulling you into frittering away your time.” (Oliver Burkeman)

As those who’ve read my book Secrets of Productive People will know, I advise people to throw away their to-do lists and rely on a “No List” system. There are two main reasons why I come down on the side of the “No List” system, one positive and one negative.

  • The negative reason is that to do lists have an irresistible tendency to expand. This destroys real focus. I have taken “catch all” systems about as far as I can with AF and FV systems, but I’ve still never really succeeded in solving this problem with them.
  • The positive reason is that a “No List” system has a remarkable effect on one’s mind, creativity and motivation.

A “catch all” to do list typically gets longer and longer, and even if it does level off it will still contain considerably more work than can be done in a day. The person using the list will typically lack focus and will not be progressing anything like as fast or as consistently as they would wish. This type of list may produce an illusion of work being done because a large number of tasks get actioned, but frequently all that’s really happening is that a lot of trivia is getting processed . As I say in the book, the ever-expanding list “refers to a never-never land where you magically get time to do all this work”

By contrast, the person working a “no list” system will quickly find that they quickly get into a routine. This routine can be consciously altered so that it works better and better, thus getting the routine work out of the way quickly. This then leaves more time for the important work. The “no list” user finds it easier to concentrate on a few key projects at a time, rather than diffuse their effort across multiple projects of varying importance.

So in the one case the result is haphazard working coupled with diffuse focus and intermittent effort. In the other case the result is stable work routines coupled with concentrated effort on the key priorities. Which to go for?


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50 Likes already on my new Facebook page for this website.

Does anyone know how to turn off the feature which shows a short extract when you post a link? Instead of extracting the main text, it’s showing the right margin!

[Update: Problem now solved. Thanks!]


Themes from "Secrets of Productive People": Questioning

Sue writes:

I purchased your book recently and although only a short way through, have been able to make some extremely good changes to my way of working. Thank you!

Where I feel I have stalled so far is understanding exactly what the intelligent questions might be to ask myself when starting out on a new project. I appreciate that this is something you feel people should work out for themselves and I can understand that; everyone is different, works in a different way, has different needs, etc. And we need to think for ourselves!

However, I feel it might help me to start if you could explore this area a little more, possibly give the odd example (I have already read the appropriate chapters.) My ‘work’ is now my old hobby, as I am retired; I am working as a textile artist. Any insights you have would be most welcome.

Questioning is at the heart of everything in the book so it’s important to get it right. Obviously as Sue says everyone is different, but neverthless the simpler one makes this process the more effectively it is going to flow into one’s work in a productive way.

Remember that the purpose of questioning is not so much to produce a list of good ideas, but to motivate and engage your brain in the work. The good ideas will certainly come, but they will come as a result of your greater engagement.

So let’s have a look at how this might work. I’ll give an example of how being appointed Marketing Officer for the local chapter of a national social and networking organisation might work. Although I shall fictionalize the details that is exactly what has just happened to me in real life!

I use Evernote for this exercise (though anything will do), and I have a Notebook in it called “Questioning”. What sort of questions do I need to ask myself about Marketing?

I shortcut that whole discussion by just opening a note with the heading “Marketing?”

Then I used my favourite questioning method, which is to list the five best ideas I can think of off the top of my head. My first day’s list went as follows (I’ve expanded the entries so they make sense to other people):

Issue personal invitations to suitable people
Members invite personal guests to events (chapter pays)
Design a decent leaflet
Publicize events in local newsletters
Subsidized events

Now I left this for 24 hours (can be less) and opened another “Marketing?” note without looking at the first one. It doesn’t matter whether some of the points are the same as in previous days or are completely different. In this case they were all different.

The national magazine should be a marketing resource
Marketers job is to sell the organization to a certain group of people
Stress benefits to prospective’s members own organizations
Articles of wider interest
Letter to Editor of national magazine

 It was this stage that the ideas started generating some action, particulary about the national magazine. This is exactly what should be happening.  You are not making a list of actions to tick off. Writing the lists should generate the desire to take action on the ideas that catch your fancy.

So I now put it away for another 24 hours and repeat the process. I do this every day for as long as I feel I’m getting benefit from it.

After a week or so I might read back over the lists to see whether there are any ideas which could be taken further, but it’s important not to keep looking back at old lists. If you become reliant on the lists, your creativity will nosedive.

You may of course find that your question raises issues which need a question of their own. In that case just start a note with the subject plus a question mark, e.g. “National Magazine?”


If you’d like your question about “Secrets of Productive People” answered, please sent it to me using the “Contact” tab in the Top Menu.


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Secrets of Productive People

I want to run a series exploring some of the themes from my latest book Secrets of Productive People: 50 Techniques To Get Things Done (Teach Yourself) . If you would like me to write further about any particular subject covered in the book, then please contact me using the Contact tab on the top menu.


"Articles" Category

I’ve just gone back over several years’ worth of blog entries to bring the “Articles” category up to date. There are now 174 articles marked up in this category.

The idea is that by clicking on the “Articles” button in the top menu you can get just the main articles in the blog without having to read all the less important stuff in between them.

It’s encouraged me to read back through the articles and I even amazed myself at the number of hidden treasures I’d forgotten all about.

So get reading - you’re in for a treat!

And if you’re too lazy to press the link in the top menu, here it is right here!


Types of Lists IX - An Effective "No List" System?

I put a question mark in the title of this post because I admit that I have not as yet succeeded in designing a system which fills all of the requirements I set myself.

How far have I got? Here’s my assessment of my new system so far.

Re-entering tasks. I’ve solved the problem of multiple re-entered tasks.

Simple to work. Yes.

Urgent stuff. Not as good as I’d like. This is the main failing, though I don’t want to give the impression that it makes the system unworkable - far from it.

Keeping the list short. The list is always kept short and  relevant throughout the day.

Getting tasks done. All unfinished tasks get worked on multiple times during the day.

Remembering tasks. I’ve solved the problem of multiple task entry.

Not deceiving yourself. Absolutely ideal for monitoring exactly how much you have succeeded in doing during a day.

Once I’ve improved how it handles urgent tasks this system will be amazing. It’s pretty amazing already!

This is the last in my series on Types of List.


If you found the series interesting and would like to support this website, especially the development of the effective “No List” system, then please give by clicking on the Donate button below.



My Book Challenge - Update

I’m getting on well with Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great, but maybe I would have done better to have chosen a book for demonstration purposes which wasn’t half the length of War and Peace!

I hadn’t quite realised how many words there would be in a 1½-inch thick paperback on thin paper with very small print.

However it’s very interesting - Napoleon’s life puts any novel in the shade. And I am now on page 97 of 820, which is about 35,000 words read - about the equivalent of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’m sure I got through that a lot faster when I read it thirty years ago, but I wasn’t looking up every person and place in Wikipedia as I was going along!


Types of Lists VIII - The Dynamic List

The Dynamic List is similar to the Open Daily List except that it refers to one project only. It is a way of ensuring that your action on a project is up to date with your latest thinking on the subject.

The technique is simplicity itself:

1. List some of the things you need to do for the project

2. Start working on them in any order.

3. Add new things as you think of them.

The list is valid for one day only. You should construct a new list the following day.

If you need to refer to notes, reminders, etc, then that should itself become a task on the list (e.g. Check Project Notes).

Dynamic lists are extremely effective, but unfortunately I have not yet succeeded in constructing a whole time management system out of them. They lose effectiveness when not constrained by the limits of a single project.



An effective “No List” system?