My Crazy Productivity Secrets

Brass Tack Thinking - On Content Marketing and Selling OutThe secret is this:

I don’t have any secrets.

Largely, I think the productivity holy grail stuff is a bunch of BS. In fact, I think that more people get in trouble trying to build some magic system to manage their stuff instead of just buckling down and DOING things when they need to get done.

I run a business. I’m a single mom. I travel about 50% of the time speaking and working on site with clients. I go to CrossFit 3x a week, I have a couple of side projects including Hope Nation. I even find time to read a book now and again.

And yet people are constantly asking me how I “do it all”.

The answer: I don’t.

Let me elaborate.

Inbox Zero is Bullshit.

Seriously, people. You don’t get a cookie for having a clean inbox. Anyone can have a clean inbox with a stroke of the delete button. The problem is that the more email you send, the more shows up. So you have to manage the communication behind the email instead of worrying about how many emails are in your inbox.

I usually have between 25 and 50 in my inbox at all times, but I mostly always know what’s in there and what needs to be done with it.

Here are my “rules”.

  • If it’s informational, not critical, not relevant or not something I’ll need to reference later, delete it. Without apology.
  • Unsubscribe. To nearly everything.
  • If I need to keep it for later, archive it into a folder (Gmail label).
  • When I’m catching up if I’m backlogged, start from the oldest first.
  • Realize that sometimes, things get missed. Apologies, pick up the ball, and move on.
  • Short responses, only communicate when necessary to move a conversation ahead.
  • Spend dedicated time on email a couple times a week, comb through stuff, make lists of to-dos based on what’s in there. (I also star emails that I’ll need to follow up on at some point).

For Pete’s sake, it’s email. Not a contest. Read it, answer it, move on. There will always be more.

I’m Not Saving Lives Here.

Seriously. I’m not curing cancer or feeding starving children. No one dies on my watch.

I’m a consultant for crying out loud. Nothing is ever that important. If it needs to wait, it can probably wait. There is no reason for me to work myself into a frenzy because of social business strategy, and very few companies have strategic planning emergencies.

Family first. Clients after that. Everything else is gravy.

It’s All A Choice.

You might choose to spend time knitting or watching Breaking Bad. Maybe you’d rather go out with your friends a few nights a week. Maybe you’d rather sleep late or go to bed early or whatever.

All of them are the right answer if they’re the right answer for you.

I make choices about how to spend my time. When I have my kiddo, she comes first. Work next. I squeeze in other stuff in the early or late hours. That means I don’t choose to go golfing or attend lots of local events or watch the latest awesome TV shows or movies.

We all get the same 24 hours. We all get to choose how we spend them.

I Own A Business To Be Free, Not To Be A Slave.

These people with their “entrepreneurship” and 80-hour weeks.

No, thank you. I left the crazy busy world of being an executive because I didn’t want to work 80 hour weeks anymore. I wanted control over my schedule, my work, my time and my choices about all three.

Which means that — gasp — I don’t work crazy hours. Some days I work really hard and long hours. Some days, I hardly work at all. It’s part of the flexibility that comes with being beholden to clients, not time clocks or office policies. I don’t have a set work-day. But I know when it’s getting out of hand. If I have to work crazy hours just to stay ahead, something has to change.

If you don’t work for yourself, that’s the point when you need to have a conversation with your boss about priorities and resources.

Because I don’t get the “busy as a badge of honor” thing. All that tells me is that you need to learn to manage your time better or get your priorities straight with yourself or the people you work for. Working insane hours is not an achievement.

Your mileage will, of course, vary. Your choice might be different. Maybe you thrive on endless work hours and secretly want people to think you’re a badass monster for working so hard. That’s totally cool with me. But it’s not the standard I measure myself against, and I really wish people would quit doing that to themselves just because that’s what they read in Fast Company magazine.

I’m a Luddite.

For as much time as I spend in the online world, I manage my work mostly with a pen and paper. A Moleskine notebook, usually. My go-to apps are pretty much email and Evernote, with the occasional Keynote presentation or Skype call.

I’ve tried and abandoned just about every task and project management app on the planet. Nothing beats a pen and paper for my work style.

The thing with tech: too little and you can’t keep up. Too much and suddenly you’re making things harder, not easier. You can spend all your time trying to refine a system of tech and apps and whatever…and never, ever get one thing done on the list that’s supposed to be managed by the app.

As for how much time I spend on social media? Enough for me. And it changes by the day depending on my purpose. No, it’s not a “distraction”, not if you don’t allow it to be. Yes, it’s incredibly useful for me most of the time. It’s just like phone or email for me now, another source of information and communication. If social media is a “waste of time” for you, you’re doing it wrong.

I’m a big supporter of the right tech for the right job. But not tech for its own sake. Sometimes it just gets in the way.

Sometimes It Doesn’t Happen.

The project I wanted to do. The blog post I meant to write. The idea I had that was soooooo awesome and I started it…only to abandon it.

Things I have to do: feed and clothe my kid, and get her to school. Spend time with her. Take care of my animals. Feed myself and keep myself healthy. Pay bills. Deliver on client projects. Do the stuff that keeps the business running, like business development or invoicing or other operational stuff.

Things I don’t: Everything else.

Which means that if I spend my time doing the stuff I need to do, there isn’t always time to do the stuff I want to do. That sometimes includes missing emails from people, or not blogging for a while, or saying no to a speaking engagement or a project that someone wants me to participate in but that’s not critical to my priorities. That’s just life.

So the idea of “doing it all”? HA. Hardly. The difference between me and most people is that I get to work on the things that need doing, and do them. But  don’t apologize for the things I don’t do. I don’t do it all. Not by a long shot. I do what I can. There’s a really big difference.

I have the responsibility of kids, animals, a house, and a business. The rest has to come after those things, and even the business can’t take over the other ones.

That’s It.

My choices reflect what’s important to me, and what makes me happy. That’s fluid and changes to an extent, but I’m devoted to a thriving career, a growing business, and excited about passion projects I have on the side.

But there is no magic system. Stop looking for it.

The more time you’re spending trying to architect the perfect productivity tricks, the more likely it is that you’re simply avoiding the stuff you should really be doing in the first place.

Being productive and balanced isn’t complicated.

Create clear priorities. Know what they are. Make decisions and do stuff accordingly. Revisit once in a while when it doesn’t feel right or something needs to give (and sometimes, things do just need to give). When those are done, make new priorities and start again.

You don’t have to make it complicated.

You do, however, have to stop reading and get to work. See you later.


  • Unmana

    Love this: thank you. (I don’t get the Inbox-Zero love either.) My biggest problem with productivity is being productive during the hours I’m “working”. I seem to spend too much time figuring out how to write that blog post or improve something or even deciding what to work on next.

    • Amber Naslund

      That IS productivity. Being productive isn’t always about making something tangible. Sometimes it’s solving a problem, or thinking of ideas, or sorting out priorities. Those things ARE work. I sense you’re not giving yourself enough credit.

      • Unmana

        I guess I’m wishing I could do things faster, because there’s always so much to do! But thanks: your post and comments (here and on Twitter) helped me realize I should just focus on what I’m doing and stop beating myself up!

        • Amber Naslund

          That’s the thing. There IS always something to do. And when you finish one thing, something else will take its place. So take a deep breath, focus on the present priority, and cut yourself a little slack. :)

          • Unmana

            Thank you. I hereby give myself permission to not be productive 12 hours every workday. :p

  • Justin Wise

    I really enjoyed this post.

  • Anita Hovey

    I’m so glad someone else thinks this inbox zero thing is a farce! It actually sounds like you and I have very similar “productivity systems” lol. I love Gmail labels and filters and heck, even the new tabs, to help me sort out the stuff that isn’t an emergency.

    I’ve been reading The 4 Hour Work Week and there’s a great quote… “Email is just a list of other people’s priorities.” I couldn’t agree more.

    • Melanie Powers

      Anita, how are you finding the “4-Hour Work Week.” I haven’t read it yet.

      • Anita Hovey

        He has some interesting ideas, for sure. I don’t buy into it all, but will adapt some things to my own business. He puts way too more emphasis on travel than I care to.

  • Monika Lory?ska

    Great article. I always thought that when someone says “I’m so busy I don’t have time for myself” it means they don’t work smart. They go to countless useless meetings and do stuff that won’t make them any money. It’s not about how long you work, it’s about working smart and choosing between what needs to be done today and what can be done tommorow.

  • Kate Brodock

    Great thoughts Amber, thanks. I especially love your honesty about the crazy (and unproductive….and unhealthy) hours that some people at least claim to do while running a business. I spoke at SXSW last year on that topic, its something I feel strongly about.

  • Katherine Bull

    Love this.. I am a recovering workaholic and my life has never been better. Sometimes I miss answering an email and get a “reminder” from people but in the overall scheme of things, my life has drastically improved. Less stress and more “being present” for my daughter and myself.

    What helps me? A very abbreviated to-do list for the day on a medium-sized Post-It note. I don’t put the action, I just put the name and maybe one word to refresh my memory. I check off what I’ve done, save the note for the next morning when I do my next to-do list so I can put tasks on it I didn’t get to the day before and then throw away the previous day’s list. On-going to-do lists depress me and make me feel like I’m not getting things done. A fresh list every morning feels like, well, a fresh day, fresh opportunity.

    I also don’t put more than 7-8 items on the list. Let’s face it, it is impossible to achieve 20 tasks in one day. I want to feel that I’ve succeeded at the end of the day, not failed.

    Oh, and at the bottom of that to-do list, I also put a couple personal to-dos as well. Ex. Vet – Zoe; Osbourne – appt.; forms – Maria. Again, not a long list but things I have to do during the day to manage my personal life.

    I agree, Amber, that high-tech isn’t the only path in managing one’s life. Sometimes you just need a Moleskine notebook or a stack of Post-It notes!


  • clarestweets

    Great practical advice! A breathe of fresh air in our tech crazy world from someone who clearly “gets it” but doesn’t need to “have it all.” Thanks Amber.

  • Enrique

    So your blog post was exactly what I needed. I´ve fallen victim to those infamous productivity apps only to notice I spend too much time getting them organized than actually doing the work. It started to not make sense a couple of weeks back, when I saw myself spending way too much time planning to the point that executing started to late in the day. This just makes more sense to me than a productivity article in such and such magazine. Thanks!

  • Kaarina Dillabough

    You had me at Luddite and moleskin, my kindred spirit! Cheers! Kaarina

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  • Pat Rhoads

    It so amazing to see a widely recognized and respected thought leader talking about the importance of family first, and MEANING it, especially from another single parent. Your obvious commitment to clear priorities is refreshing, especially for someone in your position.

    I sometimes struggle with letting some things go (work-wise). Thanks for giving a voice to show that it’s not only OK, but necessary to make those choices if you want to keep your sanity (except for those crazy people who love to work those 80 hour weeks).

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  • mindofandre

    *sparkly eyes* thanks Amber. This needed to be said.

  • Debra Gould, The Staging Diva

    Great post Amber. We have to remember the concept of “calculated neglect” that got us through university. Unless you have a very low level job (and especially if you run your own business) your day’s “work” will never be done. There are always more emails to read, ideas to pursue, or projects to move forward. It’s up to us to decide when enough is enough and shut it down for the day. Ironically, I’m writing this at 3AM because I’m totally wired tonight!

  • Kenna Griffin

    I love this, Amber. It takes a lot to get to the realization that no one is going to die if you stop pressuring yourself. I think women especially are pressured to “do it all.” We can’t. No one can. We need to quite beating ourselves up.

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