Living Like an Academic Athlete with Drs Eric Benchimol & Richard Keijzer

March 27, 2018 in Featured, Interviews

What on earth is an Academic Athlete?

I recently received an email from Dr Eric Benchimol telling me that he had cited The Productive Physician in his recent publication. [1] It turned out he was referring to an academic publication in Gastroenterology.

Although flattered to feature in such a prominent academic publication, I was also intrigued.

Which brings us back to the question: What is an Academic Athlete? Also, how & why did a couple of doctors publish an article about personal productivity in the highest ranked journal in their field? [2]

I reached out to Eric and his co-author Dr Richard Keijzer to ask these questions and more. We spent an hour chatting about personal productivity, medicine and life.

Dr Eric Benchimol





Throughout this post, I will quote from their article as well as from our conversation. For the journal article, I refer to them as ‘Benchimol and Keijzer’, while for the interview either ‘Eric’ or ‘Richard’. This information applies to anyone wanting to be more effective in their professional life, not just doctors.

What is an Academic Athlete?

Benchimol and Keijzer cite a 2001 Harvard Business Review essay on becoming a “corporate athlete”. [3] Authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz describe the “ideal performance state” as being able to sustain high performance over time. They visualise the interrelationships between physical, emotional, mental and spiritual domains as a pyramid. There are rituals linking each level.

Ideal Performance State pyramid


To quote Loehr and Schwartz:

In effect, we realized, these executives are “corporate athletes”. If they were to perform at high levels over the long haul, we posited, they would have to train in the same systematic, multilevel way that world-class athletes do.

Benchimol and Keijzer have adapted this concept to the role of Clinician Academic:

Academic clinicians combine multiple tasks involving patient care, research, teaching, and administration. This mix may inhibit your ability to achieve your goals or the expectations of your superiors.

Which leads us to…

The Academic Athlete

The establishment of goals, objectives, routines, and self-restraint all resemble the intensive discipline of athletes required to achieve the highest levels of performance. Athletes cannot simply “show up” to work and expect to achieve their best.

Dr Richard Keijzer





In our interview, Richard noted that top athletes:

have to change or oscillate between high spurts of intense training and performance, but also … make sure that they … take enough rest and sleep.

This concept might be obvious, but it isn’t considered in the employment agreements for clinician academics. Richard commented that we all go through periods in our careers where we have to put in our hours, but:

nobody can do it forever … work that hard and not … take care of ourselves. Because you’re not going to be performing at [your] best state if you only take away your energy and just burn up your energy and never recover.

Download a cheatsheet of the tips contained throughout this article.
You can also have a pdf of this post for later reading.

Planning your Career as an Academic Athlete

Benchimol and Keijzer define productivity as:

the act of being purposeful and achieving one’s goals in an efficient and effective manner.

They suggest establishing goals for several timeframes including 3-12 months, 2-5 years and 10-20 years.

I find 10-20 year goals almost impossible to manage, but I can see the value in short- and medium-term goal setting. I have recently completed a reflection and goal-setting period that set my goals for the next quarter and over the rest of 2018.

Benchimol and Keijzer recommend using the SMART goal system.

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Agreed upon
  • Realistic
  • Time-based

The 12 Week YearI have had great success with the 12 Week Year system, therefore I am planning to complete several 12 Week blocks throughout this coming year. You could imagine them as ‘sprints’ which are long enough to achieve something meaningful while not so long that the end is out of sight. I have scheduled them around periods when I know I won’t have as much control over my time – for example, when completing a period of inpatient ward service.

I selected my 12 Week goals as a result of my reflection as well as the longer-term goals I want to achieve over the whole year. In this way, my short-term sprints will inform my success with my overall goals. (I will report back on my progress.)

I agree wholeheartedly with their belief that:

Goals should be reviewed regularly and may be revised when circumstances or priorities change.

One of the reasons I like the 12 Week Year strategy is the inbuilt accountability it requires. Measurement of progress is fundamental to goal achievement.

Establishing a Productivity System

Benchimol and Keijzer discuss productivity systems for a significant part of their article. Like many others, they recognise David Allen’s Getting Things Done ® (GTD) as influencing their approach.Getting Things Done

They mention several components of traditional GTD. These include Capturing thoughts, tasks and goals in a trusted system, and Processing by ‘touching it once’ and deciding whether to do, delegate or defer.

Eric believes that traditional GTD doesn’t suit many doctors:

I know a lot of physicians with ADHD; Getting Things Done does not work for them. They just can’t … remember to write it down at the time.

Scheduling and blocking time and really filling their calendar with minute by minute what they’re going to be working on at that time, seems to work better … than the Getting Things Done method.

He concluded that the productivity system one adopts depends on personality and goals. I agree.

Although I once used GTD in the strict sense David Allen outlines in his book, I no longer practice GTD in that way. I have adapted the system to suit my needs. Other parts of my system have developed in response to the various demands on my time.

Extending and modifying GTD

Benchimol and Keijzer discuss several additions to their systems. These include:

  • Journalling

We recommend a structured journal entry to gather your thoughts and goals at the beginning or end of the day.

Examples of questions that could be answered in a journal entry include: “What did I learn yesterday?”, “What did I accomplish yesterday?”.

  • Most important tasks (MITs)

“What are my three most important tasks for today?”

  • the Eisenhower matrix (Urgent vs Important)

Grouping tasks into an Eisenhower box can help you to prioritize your day and determine whether these tasks are important and/or urgent.

President Dwight Eisenhower … famously said, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Eisenhower Matrix

Source: Wait But Why

  • the Pomodoro technique

using a timer to divide the day into focused work sessions (without interruption) interspersed with scheduled breaks (with tracking of segments achieved on a daily/weekly basis).

  • the Seinfeld technique

mark the calendar with a big red X after writing a joke every day, and “do not break the chain.”

Measuring your Progress

Eric mentioned that he uses a Pomodoro timer and tracks the number of Pomodoro segments he completes each day and week. I asked Richard and Eric what other metrics they track. As an epidemiologist, Eric is very interested in statistics, thus:

I include how many Pomodoro segments did I do on each day… and how many in the week did I do and compare it to previous weeks…

Although Richard noted he was less data-driven than Eric, he also tracks Pomodoros and to-dos.

Pomodoro timer

Pomodoro Timer

I track the specific lead measures I define related to my 12 Week Year goals.

From my Asian Efficiency guest post on metrics:

Lag measures are those of the result you’re trying to achieve. Lead measures are defined as being predictive and influenceable.

Predictive means that “if the lead measure changes, you can predict that the lag measure also will change”. Influenceable means that you have control or influence over it.

Finally, Eric also mentioned some other tracking he does:

I do track my goals at the end of the year, including the number of publications that I’m aiming for (within reason), where I’m aiming to publish, what kind of grants I want to achieve.

Keeping a Journal

Eric expanded on his journalling habit by describing his questions:

What did I learn yesterday?

What are my goals or objectives for today; the top three most important tasks?

What did I achieve yesterday?

How can I make today better?

What am I thankful for today… what am I grateful for?

What did I do to be a giving person yesterday… what did I do to be selfless and try to help somebody?

Richard noted that he also uses a structured format but doesn’t write in his journal as regularly as he’d like. He is aiming for more consistency this year.

One of my goals for 2018 is to maintain a journal, and MITs are part of my template. I am using a text expansion snippet on my computer and phone to generate an entry in the app I am using (Journey). I have Todoist set to remind me to complete my journal every day at 9 pm .

TextExpanderMy TextExpander snippet is as follows:

# Evening Journal
## Did I complete my MITs?

## Things that went well today:

## Things that went poorly:

## I am grateful for:

## Tomorrow’s MITs:

My questions are similar to those from Benchimol and Keijzer’s article, but I based my version on the discussion between Mike Vardy and Zachary Sexton on The Productivityist Podcast. Their conversation about the practice of journalling is insightful. Anyone interested in developing a habit of writing in a journal should follow the link and listen to the episode.

Would you like a copy of my structured TextExpander journal snippet?
Download it now, and I’ll also include a cheatsheet of the tips contained throughout this article and a pdf of this post.


Benchimol and Keijzer note in their article that:

Most successful athletes use routines to physically and mentally prepare themselves for their best performance. Similarly, we can use routines and rituals to prepare for the day or wind down after a difficult day.

Eric reported he has a thirty-minute routine he goes through each morning. This is simple: fifteen minutes of journalling and fifteen minutes of meditation. He exercises on three or four days each week, usually before he starts his morning routine.

Morning routines

I have tried to have an early morning routine in the past, with mixed success.

I rose at 5 am for months, doing exercise and meditation before sitting down to write. It felt good. I was productive.

So, what happened?

I was rostered back onto overnight call for my hospital, which means 10-15 calls during the night. As I had no control over when I went to bed and how consolidated my sleep period was, I couldn’t continue rising early. I needed to sleep in (relative to rising at 5 am) to function.

After that period of service finished I should have tried again, but never managed to get the motivation to start over. One needs to persevere with habits for them to become second nature!

Evening routines

Deep WorkCal Newport mentions the ritual he uses to finish his work day in his book, Deep Work. He explains it in a blog post available at his public website.

First, he reviews his task lists and calendar. Then, he revises his weekly plan based on his progress that day. Finally, he turns off his computer and speaks out loud “schedule shutdown, complete”. This ritual reminds him that everything is in a trusted system and he doesn’t need to worry until the next day.

Benchimol and Keijzer suggest the following components to an evening routine:

Your routine should start 1 hour before your bedtime. Eliminating electronic screen watching helps to increase sleep quality. Applications to reduce the blue light emitted from phones and computer screens in the evening may provide benefit. You may review the tasks completed that day and prepare your goals for the next day to prevent your mind from dwelling on incomplete tasks in bed. Journaling, meditation, and reading may also be part of your evening routine.

I am working on consolidating my evening routine, using an app on my phone called Fabulous. Created by the team lead by Dan Ariely at Duke University’s Behavioral Economics Lab, it includes all sorts of tricks and prompts to encourage the user to take action.

My evening routine includes writing in my journal, meditation, turning my phone to silent and then going to sleep. I am struggling for consistency but look forward to later in the year when I can look back at my progress.


I was interested to hear Eric and Richard’s thoughts on managing distractions. This is one of my most significant productivity challenges.

In their article, they comment that:

It is impossible to establish a focused work mindset while being repeatedly interrupted with tasks perceived as “urgent” (but frequently are not).

I could not agree more. There is no more significant barrier to peak productivity or ‘flow’ than interruptions. This applies to those around us, but we can exert some influence over ourselves by:

turning off all notifications (email, texts, social media, and pagers) while working on important tasks during scheduled blocked intervals of work.

I have written an extensive guide to managing email (rather than having it manage you). Given the ubiquity of email this is a target in their article as well:

Processing your emails should follow certain rules: delete the email if unimportant, respond if it takes less than 2 minutes, put it in your task manager if it takes longer than 2 minutes (ie, do not use your inbox as a to-do list), or archive it for later reference if it contains important information. Try to touch an email only once to limit the time spent in your inbox.

RescueTimeEric reported using RescueTime to track his computer use and report back on how he is using his time. I use RescueTime as well and find the reports both alarming and informative. I have also experimented with Freedom to block access to certain websites. Finally, the Boomerang extension for Gmail allows you to ‘pause’ your inbox if you are someone who can’t bear to close your browser window.

Time blocking and saying “no”

Another of my productivity challenges is ensuring I prioritise the work I need to do to move things forward among the administrative and ‘urgent’ issues that arise.

Benchimol and Keijzer discuss time-blocking in their article, noting that:

Time for productive activities should be scheduled in your calendar, and ruthlessly protected.

It is also important to schedule time for clinical and educational activities.

Block your time to avoid others blocking you from achieving your goals!

It is vital to establish the importance of your schedule with members of your team. We recommend establishing a weekly or biweekly time for review of patient issues, scheduled in your calendar.

Eric expanded on his approach to time-blocking and how he manages other peoples’ expectations. I found his explanation genuinely helpful:

I think it was sitting down with the nurse that I work with, who has been excellent and very respectful, and saying, “listen, if I’m not on service, if I’m not in clinic, we’ll set time aside, as much time as you need, to review the patients every week. And then if an emergency comes up, no problem, call me on my cell phone or text me. If it’s something that can be dealt with by the end of the day, send me an email and I’ll respond to you at the end of the day when I check my email. And if it’s something that can … wait, then just please hold it until the end of the week, and then we’ll discuss it then.”

Being proactive about managing others’ expectations is an essential contribution to developing a culture that allows you to schedule (and protect) time for productivity.

Saying “no”

Saying “no” is another skill that many of us do not learn in our training, yet it becomes crucial as our careers develop. The time spent on committees or in administration should not detract from our ability to produce at a high level.

Saying No

Benchimol and Keijzer suggest this is one benefit of having a senior mentor:

Your mentor can help you to determine whether new opportunities fit with your established goals, or whether you should decline. If the latter is suggested by your mentor, you should politely state, “I was intrigued by your request, but my mentor has suggested that I decline.”

Richard noted that he has needed to change his approach to meet others’ expectations:

The times where I could say, well, I’m gonna sit down at nine o’clock, lay out everything in front of me and just get into the groove of writing the whole day, that’s gone. I do think you can train yourself to learn how to be very effective in shorter bursts of time, as long as you focus on what you have to do at that moment.

The importance of Teamwork

Richard indicated that he is conscious to ensure that he works well as part of a team:

I think that’s where I want to try and experiment or focus on a little bit for this year. … try and not focus as much on just trying to publish my own next paper, but making sure that the system that I’m working in with people in the lab, … my colleagues and the clinical staff, that they’re kind of as good as they can be.

Improving the functioning of the team is likely to lead to productivity benefits for all:

It’s less about just the next publication or the next grant or the next project. It’s more about making sure that the system is … functioning so well that the rest will follow naturally.

It seemed that we were talking about the next stage in the career of a Clinician Academic: the transition from being a junior to a leader. This includes leading and managing a team so that everybody gets lifted up.


Eric agreed and extended the thought:

Yes, it might be faster if you just do it yourself right now. But … you will come to the point where you’re not going to be able to do it all yourself or you’re going to burn out. Part of what’s great about being a physician and … academic is building other people up and teaching them and having them go on to be able to teach other people.

Procrastinate on PurposeThis reminded me of part of Procrastinate on Purpose. The author, Rory Vaden, concluded that:

Whether it’s in your professional life or your personal life, the size of your success is usually determined by the strength of your team. So fill in your gaps and supplement your weaknesses by bringing on other people.

Richard agreed:

That was the one thing I regret when I started out as a clinician scientist is that I didn’t learn earlier how to delegate. I was [for] the longest time the person to say, well, it would just be faster if I do it myself. But then by the time you get to the point where you get so busy that you don’t have time to do it yourself anymore, you have even less time to delegate and to explain to people how to do things. So I think that’s an important lesson for people early on in their career. They have to learn to decide what they need to do themselves and what they can pick to teach other people to do; to be more effective yourself and also train other people.

Last chance to download a cheatsheet of the tips contained throughout this article, a pdf of this post and a copy of my structured TextExpander journal snippet.
Download them now.

The choice of productivity tools

I am happy using digital productivity tools, but that doesn’t mean they suit everyone. My partner prefers a paper diary and calendar, despite the clear benefits that might come with sharing our schedules with each other!

Benchimol and Keijzer agree that – like your choice of GTD or other systems – the selection of tools must be individualised:

You will likely adopt a mix of technology and traditional methods to achieve your goals.

They note pros and cons for analogue and digital methods:

The advantage[s] of traditional pen and paper include privacy, lack of downtime, and the ability to visualize handwritten pages quickly and easily. Most important, writing things down is typically done more deliberately than typing, thereby improving memory, mindfulness, and reflection.

Technology can be distracting, but also provides advantages: easily adding or deleting entries, storage of unlimited and searchable reference material for projects that is available anywhere (in the cloud), sharing with collaborators, and detailed time logging of activities.

I am planning to write further on the choice of digital productivity tools later in 2018.

Caring for Yourself

If you’re going to be an academic athlete, you will need to learn to care for yourself.

Sleep, diet, exercise, and mindfulness have all been demonstrated to improve energy, productivity, and efficiency.

Benchimol and Keijzer discuss the importance of sleep for maintaining health. They provide helpful suggestions on reducing screen exposure and alcohol use and the need for regular exercise. They conclude that:

No amount of extra time at your desk or in clinic is worth the damage caused by poor health.

It is easy to equate productivity to more, more, MORE.

Taking a step back for meditation or mindfulness might help you be more focused and efficient. If you could do more in the same amount of time, perhaps you wouldn’t need to chain yourself to your desk?

5 to 10 minutes of recovery is necessary for every 60 minutes of intense work.

In our discussion, Eric was keen to cover this component of their article.

Your most important task, your task that you achieve every week should include self care, should include managing your own health and managing your own emotions and then also, of course, care of your family and spending time with them.

What about ‘burn out’? The rate at which doctors find themselves at breaking point is now at alarming levels. Eric again:

Our patients don’t want us to burn out either. Our patients want us to be available, but they also want a doctor who is caring and empathetic and not a burned out, nerve-racked human being who is not functioning properly.


I learnt a lot from Eric and Richard, and I sincerely appreciate their willingness to sit down and chat with me for an extended period. I look forward to learning from them into the future.

As the final word, a direct quote from their article:

Achieving your career goals requires goal setting, a task management system, and ruthless protection of your time. It also requires self-discipline, practice, and fluidity. You may experiment with different systems before finding the one that fits with your personality and work style. Once you do, and by applying the above suggestions, you will find that your skill and endurance will improve rapidly. Your career as an academic athlete will result in a sharp increase in productivity and, most important, both life and career satisfaction.



Are you functioning as an academic athlete or could your routines and strategies do with some fine-tuning? Let us know how you wish to improve in the comments below!

References   [ + ]

1. Benchimol E, Keijzer R. Living Like an Academic Athlete: How to Improve Clinical and Academic Productivity as a Gastroenterologist. Gastroenterology. 2018; 154(1):8-14.

The Productivity Podcasts I Listen to Each Week (2018 edition)

February 1, 2018 in Podcasts, Tools

When it comes to being productive in time that I would have previously wasted, nothing comes close to listening to productivity podcasts. When I’m sitting in my car wishing the traffic wasn’t so bad, I could be mindlessly listening to the radio or using that time effectively.

Podcasts are a brilliant way to:

  • learn something new
  • catch up on news
  • get a fresh perspective and broaden your horizons

Given the ubiquity of smartphones, you can listen to a podcast almost any time you want. My high yield time for podcasts is driving to and from work. That is 60-70 minutes of five days per week: between 5 and 6 hours of time each week to improve my mind!

I subscribe to many podcasts in my podcast software (Pocket Casts), but some are there only as reminders that I would like to listen to that content at some point in the future. There are a series of podcasts that I do listen to every week, and my phone downloads them for me as soon as they are released.

Note that this list is of productivity podcasts. There are others I also listen to, but I am focusing on productivity here. My selections are listed in alphabetical order, not ranked.

The productivity podcasts I listen to every week (2018 Edition):

Able Business Radio

Able Business Radio

I originally began listening to Able Business Radio host Zachary Sexton on The Productivity Show by Asian Efficiency, and was sad to hear he was leaving that company and striking out on his own. Imagine my delight to discover he was starting his own productivity business and that would include a podcast.

Fast forward to today and Zack’s now up to over 50 episodes of Able Business Radio. He continues to attract great guests, and he approaches their conversations with a willingness to learn that I appreciate. ABR is a new entry in the 2018 edition of this post and I try to listen to every episode.

Recent highlight: How to Choose Your Next Big Goal (29th Nov, 2017)


Productivity Podcasts: The Productivity Show by Asian Efficiency

The Productivity Show by Asian Efficiency

After the departure of former host Zachary Sexton (see above), it wasn’t clear what would happen to The Productivity Show by Asian Efficiency. For the new version of their show the AE staff share hosting duties, with Mike Schmitz doing most of the heavy lifting while Thanh Pham and Brooks Duncan also contribute.

The Productivity Show tends to release longer episodes that can be more than an hour in length. Although this requires a time commitment – I often end up listening to an episode in more than one sitting – it allows for in-depth discussions that can be extremely detailed. They also feature interviews with their forum (Dojo) members which is a nice touch.

Recent highlight: 6 Ways a Mastermind Can Accelerate Your Success w/ Nate Lowrie (15th Jan, 2018)


The Productivityist Podcast

The Productivityist Podcast

One of the leaders in the online productivity space, Mike Vardy’s The Productivityist Podcast is the only podcast that hasn’t changed much since the last edition of this post in 2016. Mike continues to bring in top thinkers in personal productivity and development, as well as a variety of authors, makers and creators.

Mike always has an interesting take on whatever topic is being discussed. His background as a stand-up comedian means there are often laughs. The Productivityist Podcast is a must-listen for anyone new to podcasts and productivity.

Recent highlight: The Year of Less with Cait Flanders (10th Jan, 2018)


Other Productivity Podcasts

Of course there are other podcasts I listen to on a more selective basis as well.

I still greatly enjoy Robert Cooper’s UPWIRE when he releases new episodes. I listen to Erik Fisher’s Beyond the To-Do List when I have time.

A new entry since 2016 is Stephen Warley’s Life Skills That Matter. His podcast is targeted at listeners who are self-employed but he will often feature guests who discuss productivity or time-management strategies that are more generally applicable.

I listen to episodes from The Productivity Podcast by Paul Minors as often as I’m able, and try to squeeze in episodes from Better At Business with Marina Darlow & Shanna Mann if possible.

Finally, The 5 AM Miracle with Jeff Sanders often covers personal productivity strategies. Jeff also sprinkles in fitness and health coaching among a wide variety of topics.

The five productivity podcasts I listen to every week (2016 Edition):


Productivity Podcasts: Beyond the To-Do List

Beyond the To-Do List

Hosted by Erik Fisher, Beyond the To-Do List is one of the more actionable productivity podcasts around. Fisher gets a great selection of guests for interviews, and is an accomplished host.

The author of several books on productivity as well as being a productivity coach, Fisher comes across as calm and wise. His manner is polite and engaging, and he avoids talking over his guests. I find BTTD a refreshing listen each week.

Recent highlight: Presence: Rob Bell on Being Present with Rhythm, Routines and Rituals (22nd June)


Productivity Podcasts: Extreme Productivity with Kevin Kruse

Extreme Productivity with Kevin Kruse

Given his personal success in his career, it will come as no surprise that Kevin Kruse produces a useful podcast as well.

Kruse doesn’t conduct interviews, preferring to keep his episodes short. Most of his shows are less than ten minutes, which makes this an easy podcast to add to a playlist and fit in around longer form content.

Kruse also focuses on answering listener questions which makes him seem approachable.

Recent highlight: 5 Meeting Mistakes and How To Fix Them (20th July)


Productivity Podcasts: The Productivity Show by Asian Efficiency

The Productivity Show by Asian Efficiency

Asian Efficiency has a long history of providing actionable strategies for improving personal productivity. It makes sense that they should produce a podcast that offers the same.

Zachary Sexton is an engaging host who prepares well for his interviews. He asks good questions and mostly stays out of the way of the answers.

The Productivity Show by Asian Efficiency is probably my first listen each week. Sexton has great guests, keeps the conversation flowing and ensures his shows are punchy.

Recent highlights: Essentialism with Greg McKeown (1st August) & Influence Yourself with Ramit Sethi (29th August)


The Productivityist Podcast

The Productivityist Podcast

The Productivityist Podcast with Mike Vardy is one of the first podcasts I started listening to and remains one of my go-to listens for tips and advice.

Vardy is an interesting host with a wide range of experiences before starting this podcast. He has a great variety of guests and conducts his shows in an interview format.

I have learnt a lot of useful tips from this podcast, and Vardy is determined to make his content actionable. I find that highly important in terms of getting ‘bang for buck’.

The only criticism I make is that Vardy sometimes asks questions that get lost in his train of ideas and he himself has noted he is trying to let his guests speak more. When you are as passionate as Vardy it makes sense that you might find it hard to reign yourself in!

Recent highlight: Getting Optimized with Stephan Spencer (19th July)


Productivity Podcasts: Upwire

UPWIRE: Hacking Human Nature to Unlock Your True Potential

Hosted by Robert Cooper, who holds a PhD in psychology and is currently studying for another PhD, Upwire is a podcast that keeps things short and sweet. With episodes usually less than ten minutes in length, Cooper focuses on delivering evidence based advice for changing habits, improving focus and working to a vision.

This is the least personal of the five listed here, with Cooper’s work often coming across as a short lecture. Although the didactic nature of this show won’t appeal to everyone, Cooper tries to convey serious material in a digestible format.

Recent highlight: What you Clarify Compels (12th August)


I am always on the lookout for new productivity advice, so this list will almost certainly change over time. I look forward to discovering new sources of inspiration in the future.



Do you listen to productivity podcasts? Can you suggest any others that might enhance my life? I’d love to take suggestions… 

Finish: How to Defeat Perfectionism and Conquer Your Goals

October 24, 2017 in Books

Do you have a problem with never being able to finish what you started?

It’s not uncommon.

In fact, 92% of New Year’s Resolutions fail. [1]

(I’d be surprised if you hadn’t answered ‘yes’… are you telling me the truth?)

Jon Acuff thinks he has solved the finishing problem once and for all.

As he explains in his new book Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done (Amazon), Acuff thought he was on the right track when he encouraged people to begin in his earlier book, Start (Amazon).

Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, and Do Work That Matters is about getting started on living. Instead of waiting for inspiration or passion, start and see where it takes you. If you don’t know what you love, try lots of new things until you find it. Learn from the experience and drop what doesn’t work out.

When a researcher approached him to study the outcomes for students in his 30 Days of Hustle Challenge, however, Acuff soon learned that finishing might be the greater barrier to success.

Can Acuff show you how to finish what you start? Let’s review his book by asking some fundamental questions about the problem with finishing and his suggested solutions.

Who is Jon Acuff?

Jon Acuff

Jon Acuff (

Jon Acuff is the New York Times Bestselling author of six books including titles such as Do Over: Make Today the First Day of Your New Career (Amazon), Start and Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job & Your Dream Job (Amazon). [2][3]

He is a popular speaker having spoken to hundreds of thousands of people at conferences, colleges, companies and churches. [4]

Acuff has used proceeds from fundraising at his blog to build a kindergarten in Vietnam. [5]

What is Perfectionism?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary has two definitions for perfectionism. [6] It is the second that is relevant in our context:

a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable

In other words, being a perfectionist means striving to complete every task perfectly. This will often have negative consequences for task completion and meeting deadlines.

Perfectionism is also something of which many high achievers might be accused. My partner tells me I am a perfectionist all the time…

Acuff singles out perfectionism as one of the major reasons people fail to complete goals in Finish.

Perfectionism is never finished. That’s the lie. There’s no such thing as perfect, you can always improve. So perfectionism draws an ever moving, ever expanding finish line that you never reach. You get to be finished and imperfect or almost done and perfect.

Want to hear Jon Acuff discussing Finish? Download a list of podcast episodes and start listening.
You can also have a pdf version of this post for free.


How does Finish solve the problem with finishing?

Failure to Finish warning 1: The Day After Perfect

Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done

In Chapter 1, The Day After Perfect, Acuff explores the reason why so many quit once they’ve started pursuing a new goal.

What is the reason so many people quit chasing their dream?

Jon Acuff believes it is Perfectionism. Specifically, that something deviates from how people imagined their progress and so, instead of accepting a variation or modification of the result, they quit altogether.

Have you ever heard someone say something like this?

I fell behind and couldn’t get back on track.

Life got in the way and my plans got derailed.

The project jumped the tracks and got too messy to fix.

Acuff suggests these are all forms of:

When it stopped being perfect, I stopped, too.

His solution?

Developing tolerance for imperfection is the key factor in turning chronic starters into consistent finishers.


Do you know what will serve you far longer than perfectionism ever could? Moving forward imperfectly.

He reasons that goal-setting is essentially making a promise to yourself. When you don’t finish you break your promise.

Do that enough times, and it’s who you become. Someone who will always quit on a new goal.

To change that, Acuff suggests embracing imperfection. After all, nothing ever goes exactly as you had planned. If you can tolerate the imperfect you’ll persevere, thus increasing your chance of completion.

He concludes this chapter by stating that:

Day 1 isn’t the most important day of a goal. The day after perfect is, and now we’re ready for it.

Do you suffer from ‘never finish anything’ syndrome? Could perfectionism be limiting your success?

Finish what You Start strategy 1: Cut Your Goal in Half

Perfectionism, Acuff argues, will try to cut you down at every step of the way.

In fact, its first trick is to argue that unless you can do it perfectly, you shouldn’t even start. (And you know you won’t do it perfectly.) That’s why the day after perfect is so important.

The next lie perfectionism tells? Your goal should be bigger.

If you are going to do something, shouldn’t it be amazing? Shouldn’t it be larger than life?


Acuff’s solution?

Today I’m going to dare you to do the opposite. In fact, I want you to cut your goal in half.

His thesis is that we are often too optimistic when setting our goals. We over-estimate what we can achieve or we under-estimate the time it will take. Or both.

He quotes Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and their theory of the planning fallacy.

A phenomenon in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias and underestimate the time needed. [7]

The Planning Fallacy

Why does it matter if we fail to accurately estimate how much we can achieve or how long it will take?

Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman

Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman
(Source: Vanity Fair)

Perfectionism will tell us we are off track. It will tell us we missed the target. And, no matter how close we got, we failed. Again!

This mindset is toxic to achieving goals.

Acuff’s proposal of cutting your goal in half means that if you’re beyond the halfway mark of your original goal but haven’t reached the end, you’re not a failure. You cut your goal in half, and therefore you achieved it.

This will lead to greater motivation to continue for the original goal over a longer period, rather than giving up after failing to succeed.

He gives an example of attempting to lose ten pounds. If you decide to aim for ten pounds and lose eight, you failed. But, you lost eight pounds, which should be cause for celebration, not regret. If you had set your goal at five pounds, however, then achieving an eight-pound loss would be awesome. And, you’d be much more likely to keep going on your diet and exercise regimen and hit the ten pounds you originally wanted.

If you can’t cut your goal in half, what then?

Some goals are difficult to cut in half. For those, don’t cut them in half; give yourself more time.

Giving yourself more time than you had thought it would take addresses the planning fallacy. It also means you’re more likely to forgive yourself for going slower than planned and continue rather than simply quit.

After all:

Would the world fall apart if you did less or it took longer?

Finish what You Start strategy 2: Choose What to Bomb

I enjoy Acuff’s casual tone throughout this book. So much so that I’m planning to go back through some of his older works.

‘Choose What to Bomb’ strikes just the right tone for me. It’s playful, and yet the message is important.

This chapter explains that accomplishing a goal will take time. And, as we all know but often fail to acknowledge, our time is a finite resource. Adding a new goal necessarily means you’re adding more tasks/chores/projects/whatever to your commitments. I don’t have a lot of extra time just waiting to be filled by new goals. In fact, I’m pretty full-up with commitments already.

This leads to Perfectionism’s third lie:

You can do it all.

Acuff suggests you only have two options available to you:

  1. Attempt more than is humanly possible and fail.
  2. Choose what to bomb and succeed at a goal that matters.

He argues that we can choose between feeling ashamed at not being able to do it all or using a strategy to succeed.

Decide in advance what things you’re going to bomb

This isn’t a failure; it’s just prioritisation. You can’t do everything, so you accept in advance that during the period you’re working on a project or goal you won’t be working on some other things.

By deciding what to drop before you start, you won’t feel ashamed that that chore or task isn’t getting done. You planned for that to occur.

One example of what Acuff de-prioritises is email. I’ve already written a long piece on managing email, and it’s a strong theme in Cal Newport’s Deep Work as well. If processing and responding to email is preventing you from working on what is important, you will need to decide how important email is to you.

Another example Acuff gives is also one of Newport’s targets: Social Media.

Could you deactivate your account during a big project?

It’s not forever, and in the long run the work you get done matters more.

This is a long post. Download a pdf version to read later.
You can also have the podcast episode list to hear Jon Acuff discussing Finish.


Finish what You Start strategy 3: Make It Fun if You Want It Done

Do you have fun trying to achieve your goals? I know that I often set goals that are necessary but I wouldn’t describe them as fun.

Acuff believes this is a big problem if we want to achieve our goals.

Perfectionism believes that the harder something is, the more miserable something is, the better it is.

This leads him to Perfectionism’s fourth lie:

Fun doesn’t count.

He suggests that two important factors in goal achievement are satisfaction (how you feel about the process) and performance success (what you get done).

His research showed that goals you believe are enjoyable are associated with higher rates of satisfaction. It also increased performance success by 46%.

So what do you do if you have to complete a goal that isn’t exactly fun?

Jon Acuff Finish Quote

To find ways to make a goal more fun, he suggests leaning on either Reward motivation or Fear motivation.

Reward motivation

People who are motivated by a reward have what psychologists call an approach motivation. They are wired to approach the reward that accomplishing a certain goal will generate.

They are motivated by the prize associated with achieving the goal.

Rewards can come in many forms. Acuff suggests postponing certain experiences until after you’ve completed the project, to act as a carrot encouraging you toward the finish line. This could be a purchase, a trip, a night out. Whatever it takes to motivate you to finish.

He also provides an example of a reward that you use during the work to make the work more fun along the way. He buys a certain type of scented candle he lights only when writing a book. Thus, he gets to enjoy the scent of his favourite candle only when he is working hard toward his goal, providing motivation to do the work.

Fear motivation

Fear of negative consequences can also be a powerful motivational tool. People motivated by fear are trying to prevent an undesirable outcome rather than achieve a desired one.

The fear of the future forces them to change the present. This is called avoidance motivation.

He describes his fear of public speaking as one example:

I’m not motivated by approaching cheering, I’m motivated by avoiding jeering.

Therefore, when preparing for a speaking engagement, he uses his fear of failing his audience as powerful motivation to be as ready as he can be.


Acuff concludes that it is important to know what drives you. Are you motivated more by a reward or fear of a negative outcome?

Pick which form of motivation you need the most and then add it to as many parts of the project as possible.

For many people, both forms will be relevant at different times. Knowing yourself will allow you to choose between reward and fear motivation in any given situation.

Finish what You Start strategy 4: Leave Your Hiding Places and Ignore Noble Obstacles

In this chapter, Acuff theorises about other ways Perfectionism can halt our progress. He suggests Perfectionism will offer two distinct distractions:

  • Hiding places

A hiding place is an activity you focus on instead of your goal.

  • Noble obstacles

A noble obstacle is a virtuous-sounding reason for not working toward a finish.

Hiding Places

Why does he call them ‘Hiding places’? He suggests this is a task you can do to get a fix of Perfectionism without having to confront your fear of messing up.

In other words, your hiding place is something you do well but won’t contribute to the success of your main goal. Instead of making progress on something that’s important, you do a great job on something that isn’t.

You will never accidentally end up doing a difficult project. The work you’re trying to avoid is not something you’ll stumble upon one day unexpectedly.

Difficult work requires discipline. The hiding places perfectionism offers don’t.

If you can’t explain why what you’re doing is directly related to achieving your goal, it probably isn’t. He suggests asking a friend or loved one whether they think what you’re doing makes sense or is just avoidance.

How can you identify your hiding places? Ask yourself three questions:

  1. Do you find yourself going there accidentally?
  2. Do you have to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to justify why you’re giving it time?
  3. What do your friends think?

Once you’ve identified your hiding places, you’re able to see when you’re distracting yourself from your main goal.

Acuff then suggests using Judo to help turn hiding places into motivation.

You don’t push back against a charging foe, you lean backward and allow the rush to topple your opponent unexpectedly. That’s what you should do when a distraction gets too loud.

If you’re getting distracted by a new goal or hobby, use it as motivation to finish your current one:

When new ideas or new goals get shiny, put them at the finish line.

Line your finish line with the dream goals you’re currently using as hiding places and then watch how fast you’ll run toward it.

Noble Obstacles

Acuff suggests there are two forms of Noble Obstacle that Perfectionism will throw up as reasons you can’t pursue your goal:

  1. you cannot move toward your goal until you do something else
  2. reaching your goal could actually produce bad results or make you a bad person

He proffers examples of noble obstacles while singling out the word ‘until’ for special criticism:

Until I know why I have an issue with food, I can’t walk around the block at a brisk pace for more minutes today than I did yesterday.

Until I know what my entire book is about I can’t write the first hundred words.

Until I know where all the stuff in every room of my house is going to go I can’t clean this one room.

Until I pick the perfect goal I can’t work on anything.

Until I get rid of distractions I can’t get anything done.

He also suggests phrases including If … then and It’s too hard are sure signs of noble obstacles.

After realising you’re using noble obstacles, how do you get back on track? Acuff dares you to ask two questions:

  1. Could things be easier?
  2. Could things be simpler?

His conclusion?

Jon Acuff Finish Quote

Finish what You Start strategy 5: Get Rid of Your Secret Rules

Perfectionism is a desperate attempt to live up to impossible standards. We wouldn’t play if we knew the whole game was impossible, so perfectionism promises us that we just need to follow some secret rules.

What kinds of secret rules have you internalised over the years of your life? What self-talk do you use that guides your decision making, and you aren’t even consciously aware of doing it?

These questions are the basis for Acuff’s suggestion to identify and eliminate secret rules.

He provides examples:

If I’m not miserable, I’m not doing something productive.

If it doesn’t come easily, it’s not worth doing.

Success is bad.

I recognised myself in his examples, as I’m sure many readers would. I am certain that I have been living my life by secret rules for many years, and am now determined to flush them out and expose them to the bright daylight they’re so afraid of.

One of the features of these secret rules is that often won’t stand up to scrutiny. They might not be true, or they might no longer be true.

Acuff suggests a three-step process to dealing with secret rules:

  1. Identify them
  2. Destroy them
  3. Replace them

Smoke Out Your Secret Rules

To identify your secret rules, ask yourself four questions:

  1. Do I even like ____________?
  2. What’s my real goal?
  3. Does the method I’m using match who I am?
  4. Is it time to quit?

He suggests these four questions will allow you to get to the truth of the matter. Honest reflection on why we choose our goals and how we go about them will illuminate strategies to help with completing these and subsequent goals.

Destroy and Replace

Identifying your secret rules is one thing. Destroying and replacing them is the solution.

The first thing you should do is simply ask the question, “What does that mean?” For each secret rule you encounter.

The second question to ask is “Who says?”

The final step is to write a new rule that is flexible, healthy and reasonable. Replace your nasty, toxic, secret rules with a new one.

Finish what You Start strategy 6: Use Data to Celebrate Your Imperfect Progress

This chapter made my heart sing. I love measurement. Data tells the truth. I wrote a guest post at Asian Efficiency all about the importance of measurement, and I’ve written about it here as well. Ongoing measurement is a critical component of the 12 Week Year process which I also have also described and reviewed.

Acuff believes that data can disprove the lies of Perfectionism. Specifically, that Perfectionism will tell you that you aren’t making progress and things aren’t going well. When you have data representing where you were before, you can prove your progress (and quieten Perfectionism).

Perfectionism hates data. Why? Because emotions lie, data doesn’t.

What are some examples of where data can help you fight back when Perfectionism tries to hijack your attention?

How many inches have we lost during our diet?

What percent of body fat?

How many hours did we work out this week versus last week?

How much has our salary grown over the last three years?

How many total words did we write this summer versus last?

How many dollars do we have saved up for our next vacation?

Is our progress on this goal any different from the last goal?

One of the reasons we fail to appraise our progress accurately is denial. Denial is an especially difficult foe, as it is far easier to recognise in others than ourselves. Which leads to the most quotable phrase in Finish:

Data kills denial, which prevents disaster.Click To Tweet


Data kills denial, which prevents disaster

Acuff argues that data allows you to take out the emotion and just deal with the facts. What is the truth? Perhaps the truth is that you’re tanking this goal, in which case you might want to review your plan or even reconsider why you’re doing it.

Another way that data helps is by showing us how far we’ve come. When you’re running a marathon, it could be easy to focus on how far away the finish line remains. Another way to look at it is to consider how far you’ve already come. You can’t know how far you’ve come unless you record the data that tells you.

Your goal is to get to 100 percent and you’re only at 40, you’ve failed.

The reality is that 40 percent is monstrous progress when compared to zero, but miniscule when compared to 100.

Sometimes, to make it through the middle, we have to be very deliberate about our perception.

Finally, it is important to consider the past. Ask yourself: when have tried to reach a goal like this one before? What happened? What can you learn from that experience? How might this help you have greater success with this goal?

Once you’ve collected the data, you need to review your progress. If you’re falling behind, you have three options:

  1. adjust the goal
  2. adjust the timeline
  3. adjust your actions
I have collated a list of podcasts featuring Jon Acuff discussing Finish. Download it now and start listening.
You can also have a pdf version of this post to read again any time that suits you.


Failure to Finish warning 2: The Day Before Done

Remember the day after perfect? What if Perfectionism has one more chance, one last chance to create havoc?

You fought through the day after perfect. You cut your goal in half. You made sure your goal is fun. You are inches away from finished and perfectionism knows it.

Acuff suggests there are three more fears that Perfectionism can create:

  1. The fear of what happens next
  2. The fear that it won’t be perfect
  3. The fear of “what now?”

His conclusion:

Jon Acuff Finish Quote

His research led him to conclude that the best way to finally finish is to enlist the help of a friend. A friend can cut through all the fears and the misinformation that Perfectionism throws our way. A friend can tell us the truth, and help us to finish.


Fear no finish line. You’ve worked too hard to give up now.

Will the outcome be different from your vision? Yes. I can’t lie to you this late in the book. But you’ll never know the unbelievable joy of keeping a promise to yourself unless you finish.

Starting is fun, but the future belongs to finishers. Ready to be one?


I had a great time reading Finish. And I’ve enjoyed skimming and re-reading highlights while preparing this summary.

Acuff’s writing is jovial and light-hearted, but it conveys the interest of someone who feels like they care about your success. He is funny and tells a good anecdote. Some of the stories he shares from people he has worked with are moving, and others just frustrating. But they’re always interesting and will often make you laugh.

Finish is an easy book to read: I completed it in a few days of intermittent reading while on holiday and found it wasn’t taxing at all. This is deceptive, however, as I have found myself reflecting on the lessons from the book in the weeks since, realising that I have been holding onto my own secret rules and noble obstacles.

I can’t tell how many of my goals have been subverted by Perfectionism, but I know that there was something in every chapter of Finish that rang true. This is one easy read that could have a profound effect if applied in full.

I am planning to ensure my next goal-setting period incorporates several of the tricks and tips from Finish. I haven’t included the action steps Acuff lists at the end of each chapter, but I will be checking those off in my planning. I look forward to reporting back on my successes and failures.


Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done is applicable for anyone who has ever failed at achieving a goal. Everyone, in other words.

One of the benefits of Acuff’s writing is that it is so accessible. There aren’t a lot of complicated ideas or data to review, just ideas from research translated into actionable recommendations that anyone can apply.

One of the best examples I could find in my life is my inaction during most of this year on having an academic paper published. I submitted my article and it was promptly rejected, although the reviewers provided a list of ways to improve the submission.

This is common, and should not stop someone from re-writing and re-submitting elsewhere. However, for a variety of reasons I haven’t gone on to do so.

These include not being sure of exactly which journal I should submit it to, and how much to re-write and modify the piece. After reading Finish, I suspect that these were hiding places and noble obstacles rather than valid reasons. I believe I have a secret rule that suggests that if one journal didn’t want it, no-one will want it.

Acuff has inspired me to open my article, review the editor’s comments and find somewhere to re-submit.

Mea Culpa

Another goal I have been failing to work on is my goal of writing articles for this site. I want this website to be a powerful resource for physicians who want to become more productive. How have I been pursuing that goal? I’ve spent a lot of time tweaking fonts and scripts, trying to work on page loading speed and caching plugins.

All of those things are good things to do, but not if they are distracting or diverting me from getting the important work done. The important work is writing new articles. Fiddling with plugins and scripts, albeit useful, are noble obstacles I’ve been using as excuses.

I hope that my behaviour moving forward is more mindful of the value I hope to create and that I can keep Acuff’s Finish principles in mind!


One the real joys of reading Finish is that Acuff has provided action steps at the end of each chapter. These steps are simple and easy, but I suspect they will show results faster than you imagine.

Although his writing is easy to read throughout the book, the action steps Acuff provides will walk you through identifying ways to prevent you from falling victim to the Planning Fallacy, how to decide on things you can bomb, how to add fun back to goal-setting, how to identify and neutralise the impact of hiding places and noble obstacles, how to identify, destroy and replace your secret rules, how to enlist data to kill denial, and how to just finish.

The action steps will guide you. Just buy a copy of the book (Amazon), read it, study it and follow his steps. Don’t forget to register your purchase as Acuff has provided a bunch of worksheets and guides to help readers even more.

Finally, Acuff has three separate mailing lists for his readers aimed at Writers, Speakers and Entrepreneurs. You can sign up for one or more at his site.


Do you have trouble finishing what you start? After reading a lot of books on goal-setting and personal productivity in the last few years, I can say that Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done is one of the easiest but most powerful.

If you have ever wondered how to increase your chance of success, Acuff’s book might be just the answer.



Have you read Jon Acuff’s Finish? Do you have a problem with finishing your tasks or goals? Did any of Acuff’s advice ring true? Let us know in the comments!

References   [ + ]

1. Jonathan Acuff, Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done (New York: Portfolio / Penguin, 2017), 2.
7. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 260.

Inbox Zero: The Ultimate Guide to Managing Your Email

August 29, 2017 in Featured, Tools

Inbox Zero.

It seems like a cruel joke, doesn’t it?

If you’re anything like me – and I bet you are – you receive more email than you know what to do with. In the days before writing this post, I received hundreds of emails. I have eight separate email addresses, and those are just the ones I can remember. The chance of me managing my emails under these circumstances is almost zero unless I utilise a robust email management system.

Sound familiar? What if I told you that you could regain control?

I can show you how to get your email inbox to zero every day.

You just need to follow the steps in my guide to email management and be disciplined.

The Email Problem

I’m not about to suggest you go off email altogether. Many productivity experts will recommend leading a revolution within your organisation and moving to Slack.

This isn’t practical for me. I can’t change the culture of my workplace, a hospital that employs something like 6000 people. It is impractical to suggest moving to Slack.

Email isn’t going away anytime soon, and certainly not in my workplace!

If we accept this, we need to consider ways to improve our experience of managing email. Because hundreds or thousands of emails a week is a quick way to become bogged down in other peoples’ priorities.

That’s what an email is, after all. It is someone else demanding your time and attention. It doesn’t have to be assigning you a task or requesting a meeting. Every email requires you to decide what it means to you.

And every decision we need to make leads to less headspace for concentrating on what is important to us.

The scope of the problem with email is so great that email management has become an industry in itself. There are tools and webinars, apps and courses. Trust me: I’ve signed up for a few!

What is Inbox Zero?

Merlin Mann originally coined the phrase to describe the amount of attention you should be focusing on your inbox.

That “zero”? It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox – it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. – Merlin Mann [1]

I have embedded a fantastic Inbox Zero video presentation Mann gave at Google in 2007 below. He explains his conceptualisation for email and its role in his life, as well as his approach to email management. Yes, it’s ten years old – a lifetime in internet years – but the principles are timeless.

Consider watching it and then continue reading.


Note that Inbox Zero doesn’t mean there aren’t emails in your inbox using the Merlin Mann definition. This has become the modern definition that many people will be assuming when they talk about Inbox Zero and email management.

Having zero emails left in your inbox is an amazing feeling when it happens. However, it is counter-productive to have a system that encourages you to feel guilty if there are emails left. The goal should be to optimise your email processing strategy such that you minimise time spent on managing your email.

This post is over 10000 words. Download a copy to read later.
I’ll also provide a checklist to work through and a copy of my processing workflow.

Inbox Zero Step 1: Eliminate

The best long-term strategy for reducing the time spent in your inbox is to reduce the amount of email you receive.

While that might seem like common sense, this step is so crucial that it bears repeating (or tweeting!).

The best long-term strategy for reducing the time spent in your inbox is to reduce the amount of email you receive.Click To Tweet

Why is this step so important?

Consider how long it takes you to read the subject line of an individual email, decide whether to open it or not and then click delete. Let’s assume it takes you 10 seconds. Now consider how many emails you receive each day that you just delete without opening.

(I recently checked my email clients to work out how many emails I had processed in this way, and I am too embarrassed to admit the true number!)

If we estimate that you receive 45 such emails each day, you will spend 7.5 minutes each day just deleting emails that you don’t even open.

That’s 52.5 minutes every week – almost an hour!

This works out to 2737.5 minutes per year, a whole 45.6 hours! That is an entire working week every year that you could free up.

What could you achieve with an extra week every year?

But stop, you say, I’m a keyboard shortcuts ninja, and I can process each email in five short seconds. How do an extra 22.8 hours each year sound? That’s half a work week!

Hack your Email Tip 1: Search the Trash

Assuming you use Gmail you can easily find out how many such emails you have processed.

Go to the search bar while in your Gmail inbox and paste the following:

in:trash is:unread after:2017/08/28 before:2017/08/29

Go ahead and change the dates if you like, just make them consecutive.

Now, use the handy calculator I created below. Enter the number of emails you’ve deleted without opening and your estimate for how long it takes you to process each of them (in seconds). The calculator will show you how much time you might save just by reducing the flow of emails that you don’t even open.

Email Time Savings Calculator

Number of Emails:  *
Number of seconds per email:  *
Minutes saved per day: 
Minutes saved per week: 
Hours saved per year: 
What could you do with more hours each year??


Once you have worked out what the scope of your problem is, you can start to make informed decisions moving forward.

Examine the list of emails that you have deleted without opening. How many of them are newsletters or subscriptions to mailing lists?

Hack your Email Tip 2: Unsubscribe

Remember that search we used in Gmail earlier? What would happen if we added “unsubscribe” to that search? Or some other synonymous terms?

in:trash is:unread after:2017/08/28 before:2017/08/29 unsubscribe OR opt-out OR “opt out” OR “mail preferences” OR “email preferences” OR “manage notifications” OR “manage your notifications” OR “manage alerts” OR “alert preferences”

Try it out.

What should happen is that you will see a shorter list of emails, but they are much more likely to be mailing lists or newsletters.

Why does this work? The CAN-SPAM Act requires commercial email to allow consumers the ability to opt-out of future email. The Spam Act in Australia requires the same thing. Thus, all newsletters and mailing lists should have an unsubscribe link.

The link is often at the bottom of the email. Open a few of those deleted emails and look for it.

Now, go through and consider whether you want to stay subscribed to that service or not. If you don’t think it’s adding much value, unsubscribe!

Although it might seem this step is taking a while, you are investing in your future self. Every one of those emails that you unsubscribe from means that every time that company or mailing list sends a new email you save another 5-10 seconds.

As I said in my commentary on Procrastinate on Purpose:

The investment of time now to improve a system, workflow or automation reaps the reward of increased time later.

Hack your Email Tip 3: Unsubscribe redux

There are commercial services that can do all of this for you: one well-known service is They received a lot of negative press earlier this year when it turned out they were selling user data. Many people were rightly outraged, although what they were doing is in their terms of service.

If you don’t want to offer unfettered access to your data to the highest bidder, there is an open-source script that could help (if you’re using Gmail).

Follow the instructions written by well-known Google Apps hacker Amit Agarwal. What you’ll be doing is copying a Google Sheet into your Google Drive.

Gmail Unsubscriber

Once you’ve copied it into your account, click on the ‘Gmail Unsubscriber’ button in the menu at the right side. Grant the sheet access to your Gmail account, and then set-up an ‘Unsubscribe’ label in Gmail.

The script will check your Gmail account every 15 minutes for new emails with the label Unsubscribe. When it finds one, the script will attempt to unsubscribe you from further emails.

To use it, just assign the ‘Unsubscribe’ label to any emails from which you wish to unsubscribe, and the script will do the rest. You can even do this in bulk – just label multiple messages as Unsubscribe.

Labnol Gmail Unsubscriber script


You’ll end up with the sheet showing all the emails it has unsubscribed you from in case you ever need to check.

Eliminate: Other Email Clients

All three of those tips apply to Gmail, as the search functions within Gmail are fantastic. (As you’d expect from a company which first came to prominence as a search engine.) You can modify these suggestions to deal with other email providers as follows.

Microsoft Outlook – click into Deleted Items and search for:

unsubscribe read:no AND received:>=28/8/17 AND received:<=29/8/17

Windows Live Hotmail:

Body:unsubscribe received:28/8/17..29/8/17

Yahoo Mail:

unsubscribe before:”2017/8/28″ after:”2017/8/29″


Unsubscribing from mailing lists and newsletters that are no longer of value to you is just dealing with the low hanging fruit. After eliminating, the next step is to consolidate your email in as few inboxes as possible.


Inbox Zero Step 2: Consolidate

Remember those eight email addresses I mentioned earlier? How many do you have?

It is harder to be efficient when you have to manage multiple email accounts. I would encourage you to simplify if you can. If you’re not using an account, close it. If you can’t remember the last time you got an email at that address, close it.

What if you don’t want to close your account? You have two options:

  1. Use an email client that allows you to manage multiple email accounts
  2. Set up a forwarding arrangement so that all your email ends up in one inbox

I use a combination of both of these approaches.

Hack your Email Tip 4: Get mobile

In my opinion, the best way to process your email quickly is to do it on a mobile device.

Many Android or iOS apps will allow you to setup import from Gmail, Outlook, Exchange Server and other email services. Centralising is the best way to manage multiple email accounts while on-the-go.

My favourite of these apps is Newton Mail (formerly known as CloudMagic). I have set it up such that I can see all of my email accounts in my Newton interface.

I can choose to view all of my emails in a massive combined inbox. My preferred option is to keep them separate, however, as this allows me to ignore work email on weekends but keep using my personal accounts.

Newton Mail

When looking for such an app try to find one that allows you to send as if you’re in the account’s native app. In other words, if you’re looking at an email in your Gmail account and want to respond, the recipient will get an email from your Gmail address.

I will be discussing mobile apps and Newton more in the Process section.

Hack your Email Tip 5: Import / Export

You can set up Gmail (and many other webmail applications) to import email from your other accounts. You can even grant Gmail access to the other account’s servers so that email will appear to have come from the other account. (i.e. I send the email from within the Gmail interface, but it seems to have come from my address.)

I only use this feature for my webmail services. These include an old Hotmail account, a Yahoo account, and the email accounts associated with this website and another website I develop.

Although this step is slightly technical, it isn’t all that hard for someone savvy enough to be reading this website!

Import from other accounts

The first step is to open the settings in your Gmail account. Look at the top right of the screen in your web browser for the small gear (cog) icon with the drop-down arrow beside it.

Gmail Settings

Click the gear and choose Settings from the menu that appears. The settings screen will appear, and you need to select ‘Accounts and Import’.

Gmail Settings

Find the section labelled ‘Check mail from other accounts:’ and click the text link ‘Add a mail account’.

A new window will pop-up and appear something like this:

Gmail Settings

Add the email address from which you wish to import and click Next. The pop-up window will change. You will see the option to use ‘Gmailify’ or POP3 depending on the account from which you’re importing.

Gmail Settings

If Gmailify is available, this will allow you to send as if from the original account. If only POP3 is available, you will be importing emails only at this stage. Click Next and the screen will change again.

You now need to enter your email account details. Enter your username and password.

Gmail Settings

You can obtain the POP Server address and Port from your email account provider or by a quick Google search.

Click Add Account and the process should finish.

Send via other accounts

If you can’t use Gmailify for your account and are stuck using POP3, you can still set up Gmail to send from your other account.

Go back to the Accounts and Import page and find ‘Send mail as:’. Another window will pop up asking for the Name you wish to send email as and the email address.Gmail Settings

Add your details and click on Next Step. You will now need to enter your SMTP settings. Again, you can get these from your email account provider or Google.

Gmail Settings

Add your account, and you should now be able to choose to send email from that account from within Gmail!


After eliminating as much incoming email as possible and consolidating your email inboxes into as few as possible, the next step is delegation.

Sign up now to download an Inbox Zero checklist to work through and a copy of my processing workflow.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf.


Inbox Zero Step 3: Delegate

Many productivity buffs will suggest you employ a virtual assistant (VA) to process your email for you.

Of course, this is one way in which you could reduce your time spent in email. However, I am not yet at the point of trusting someone else with the keys to my online world. So much of our lives is now managed through email. Just think of the number of account activation emails and receipts you receive and consider the potential for identity theft.

As a doctor, I also receive sensitive material via email from time-to-time. This isn’t something I encourage, as many email clients aren’t fully secure.

In the United States, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) outlines an extensive array of protections to ensure sensitive health information isn’t inadvertently released to third parties. Although this doesn’t apply to me (the Australian equivalent does!), health professionals need to understand their local privacy laws when considering the safe use of electronic communications.

Utilise an Executive or Personal Assistant

One way in which you might consider delegation is if you are lucky enough to have a personal (PA) or executive assistant (EA).

Christina Holzhauser - Tips for AssistantsGiven I have never worked with an assistant before, I reached out to Christina Holzhauser at Tips For Assistants. I asked her some questions about how to optimally work with an assistant in managing email.

Christina is the founder of Tips for Assistants, which is an online resource designed to give advice and resources to assistants and administrative professionals to help them to perform at the highest level. She has more than a decade of experience in a wide array of assistant roles. You can connect with Tips for Assistants on the following platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Google+.

For my first question to Christina, I wanted to clarify the types of tasks that an assistant might help their manager with. (Note that Christina writes in US English while I use British English.)

For someone just starting to work with an assistant, in what ways can an assistant help with email management?

The ways a manager utilizes their assistant’s support will vary and email management is no exception. For example, some people prefer for their assistant to reply to specific emails whereas others do not want their assistant to perform that function at all.

Assistants can sort emails into folders, set up rules, categorize emails and come up with more efficient email processing systems.

A lot of the time, email management overlaps with calendar management. Meeting requests end up in the same inbox and communication frequently occurs about those, so that is a related task that assistants tend to manage as well.

What are some of the most effective ways that an assistant can help manage email for the manager?

A strategic assistant would think of different perspectives when it comes to approaching email management. The assistant would think from the perspective of being on the defense (when they are working inside of their manager’s inbox) and the offense (when they are working outside of their manager’s inbox).

When the assistant is on the defense, there are numerous ways for them to keep the manager’s inbox organized, efficient and generally running in a way that aligns with their manager’s preferences. The key word is preferences; every manager will want their inbox overseen differently, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all guide.

Here are some general tips that can be personalized to fit the needs of the individual the assistant is supporting when they are on the defense:

  • Discuss the current email management system
    At a high-level, assistants that help with the email management task are actually acting as productivity managers to maintain a system that allows their managers to be as efficient as possible. The assistant needs to know what is working, what is not working, if there are any past systems that should be revisited and what the specific goals are.
  • Determine how often the manager wants their inbox checked
    Having baseline agreed upon times set up from the start ensures clear expectations. This is especially helpful when the assistant is managing multiple managers’ inboxes.
  • Establish a folder system
    The system is something that can either be established by the manager or by the assistant. If one has already been established, there might be a need to optimize the folders in place. The main aspects of a great folder system are that it is a living system, it’s uncomplicated and helps to maintain the manager’s inbox goals.
  • Set up mail rules
    The assistant can set up mail rules to help keep the manager’s inbox organized at an even faster pace. However, I have seen emails not part of the rules somehow wind up in a folder that they weren’t meant to go into. I recommend assistants monitor all folders and not assume that the rules are running 100% correctly on autopilot.
  • Establish a labeling system
    If there’s a system in place, the assistant should keep their eyes peeled for ways to keep it optimized. One element that should be considered when either setting up or establishing the labeling system is whether it will be used for assigning purposes. For example, a specific label could indicate if an email is assigned to either the assistant or the manager to take action on. Another element to consider is for sorting purposes. If the manager finds it helpful to reference emails by labels, then those types should be set up.
  • Work to unsubscribe the manager from all email lists
    It is easy for inboxes to get clogged up with junk emails so assistants can help to remove their manager off all (or some) email lists. Before unsubscribing, assistants should get permission from their manager to do so.
  • Determine how to best respond to emails
    When the assistant is new, it is important for the manager to outline what kinds of emails he/she expects them to either draft or directly reply to. After narrowing down the types of emails the assistant will be taking action on, the assistant can work with the manager to get a few templates or examples to refer to.
  • Set up canned email responses
    If the assistant or the manager find themselves writing the same responses over and over again, canned responses can be created to save time. All of those extra minutes add up over time!


There are ways in which the assistant can be effective on the offense when they are outside of their manager’s inbox as well:

  • Work to move the manager to BCC whenever possible
    Quite often the assistant is emailed communications that their manager is copied on. Instead of clicking ‘Reply All’, the assistant should take a moment to decide if it’s necessary to keep the person they are supporting on the email chain. This is especially the case when it comes to emails regarding calendaring; the manager doesn’t need to be copied on all the back and forth.
  • Consolidate emails
    The assistant should always work to consolidate emails that they are sending to their manager whenever possible; they should avoid sending one-off emails unless they are time sensitive or of high importance. What has worked for me is starting an email draft with non-urgent updates and sending it at the end of the day. You’d be amazed at how many one-off emails this practice saves! For an example of how to go about this process, check out my article here.
  • Think through the email before copying the manager
    I recommend assistants take a moment to decide if their manager needs to be copied before doing so. If the answer is yes, assistants should anticipate the questions the readers on the email might have and provide that information up front. Including all details from the get-go decreases the chance of additional follow up emails.
  • Be concise and get to the point
    Whenever assistants need to send emails to their managers it’s a good idea to avoid being wordy. If there’s no way around having bulky content, assistants can use bullets to ensure the email is well organized and easy to scan. To prevent ambiguity, assistants should proofread their emails to make sure their word choices are as clear as possible. Taking the time to do this avoids the need for clarifying questions (and ensuing emails) later on.
  • Don’t compose an email
    If the assistant knows he/she will be getting some face time with their manager soon, then any updates or questions could be discussed at that time.

Another way for assistants to be on the offense is to explore task management programs. These programs were not only designed to help manage tasks, but they have optimized team communication and resulted in reduced emails. I keep a master list of task management programs that I recommend here.

One final note about assistants being on the offense is for them to keep their eyes peeled for other apps that can help to declutter and optimize their manager’s inbox. For example, if the assistant notices that their manager’s inbox is inundated with constant back and forth emails about scheduling, they could take that as a cue to look into scheduling programs that could help to eliminate emails about that entirely. (I keep a great master list of calendaring apps here).

What are some of the potential risks when an assistant is helping with email, and how might they best be mitigated?

Unfortunately, there are some potential risks when an assistant is helping with email. The most crucial item I want to bring up is security. I do not recommend managers share their passwords for their primary email accounts with their assistant; that is what the email delegation feature was created for. The delegation feature gives the assistant all the access they need to do their job.

Trust is an important aspect of any relationship, and it takes time to establish. When the manager gives delegate access to their email account the assistant can preview a lot of information, which they are able to forward, download and save on their own computer. Some managers might not feel comfortable giving this kind of access right away.

There’s a creative solution for the manager to receive immediate help with email management without giving access to their main email account. The manager can set up a second email account and start forwarding emails to their assistant to manage there. This way their personal and sensitive emails are kept separate until they are ready to give delegate access to their main email account. Starting with an indirect approach gives time to build up trust before giving full access to all of their sensitive emails right off the bat.

Another risk is the assistant opening scam emails that the manager might normally delete. Unfortunately, hackers are learning how to craft more legit looking emails these days, so it’s important to make sure the assistant has a keen eye. The manager could send over a few articles for their assistant to read so they are aware of key identifiers to be on the lookout for. In addition, the manager should make sure their assistant’s computer is safeguarded with an antivirus program and firewall to help to protect against phishing scams.

Many of us have accidentally sent emails before we were finished composing them and there’s a chance that assistants might accidentally do this when composing emails on behalf of their manager as well. There are a few ways to mitigate this error. One way is for the assistant to delete all of the recipients off of the email draft until it is ready to be sent. The other way is a tip for Gmail users. If the manager has Gmail, the Undo Send feature can be turned on.

My last tip is for the manager to be diligent when articulating best practices with their assistant. It is a huge risk if the manager doesn’t communicate the necessary updates in order for their assistant to do their job well. If the manager doesn’t want their inbox managed poorly then any updates should be given to their assistant in a timely manner.

Do you perceive any risks with using a remote EA/PA (or VA) to assist with email? If so, what are they and how can they be reduced?

There is a risk if the manager is using an assistant outside of their organization because the assistant will be using their own personal computer to do the work. The manager should find out what antivirus program the assistant uses, if they use a firewall and if they use a VPN. Basically, the more information the manager knows about the security measures the assistant is taking to protect their sensitive information, the better protected their email account (and the rest of their personal information) will be.

If the assistant is outside of the manager’s organization, the manager might want to consider having them sign an NDA (Non-disclosure Agreement). These are fairly common as part of the on-boarding process for many assistants, especially in personal settings. As I mentioned before, emails can easily be forwarded, downloaded and saved on the assistant’s computer. A lot of times companies do have guidelines in the employee handbook about keeping company information confidential. An NDA would act in a similar way to help the manager keep their personal information confidential.

What are any ‘best practices’ you advise? Standard operating procedures? Guidelines or agreements? Policies or procedures?

Ongoing communication is an essential part of a strong relationship between the manager and the assistant. There will be extra time needed for the manager to invest in communication upfront. In order for the assistant to learn all the manager’s preferences and to manage their inbox exactly how they would like it, that extra time spent communicating those preferences in the beginning is necessary.

The manager should prioritize weekly check-in meetings with their assistant as part of their commitment to ongoing communication. If these meetings have not been established, here is an article on the many reasons why they are important. In general, these meetings are a great time for both the assistant and manager to ask questions, to discuss feedback and for the assistant to get any pieces of information they had been waiting on to complete tasks related to email management.

The assistant should be recording all best practices, procedures and preferences in their job manual and there should be a dedicated chapter for email management. The manual should be kept in a place that the manager can access, preferably on a shared cloud drive. If the assistant has not started a job manual, I wrote an article on how to set up one of those binders here. All procedures and preferences should be included in the binder.

If a back-up ever needs to temporarily help with the email management task, then that chapter could be shared as a how-to guide to follow. Typically, processes will undergo a bit of tweaking over time when either the manager or the assistant notice ways to make improvements and the assistant should always be recording those. Whenever the manager notes a change in preferences, the assistant should record those as well. Essentially, the binder is a living reference for everyone.

Do you have any other ideas or concepts that you consider important when asking an assistant to help with email?


I want to throw out the notion of keeping three separate email accounts: a work email account, a personal email account and a miscellaneous email account. Most likely a manager won’t require an assistant to oversee their personal email, so keeping those emails separate allows for a bit of privacy. The miscellaneous email account is one that might need some email management, but would not be the main inbox to manage. The main function of that inbox would be for email subscriptions, newsletters and orders that might result in being placed on mailing lists. Basically, this inbox keeps the clutter out of the work and personal inboxes. The work email account would be the primary inbox that the assistant would manage. One person I assisted had this system and it made a lot of sense!

I want to end with the manager prioritizing open communication and encouraging the assistant to think outside of the (in)box. Just like the idea of looking into a task management program if one isn’t being used already, it’s important for the assistant to feel like he/she can come to the person they support with new ideas to try. Every email that comes in requires a decision and the more ways that can be reduced, the more time the assistant has to spend supporting the manager with other tasks.


I found Christina’s responses really helpful, and if I am ever lucky enough to have an assistant I will be referring back to them for guidance. Thanks, Christina!

Hack your Email Tip 6: Say Hello to Amy

If you don’t have an EA or PA and aren’t willing to use a VA, would you consider using AI?

There has been an explosion in AI in recent years, and one area that has benefited is scheduling meetings. The most well-known service is, but there are several others including Kono.

When you start using an AI assistant to schedule your meetings, you will need to grant them access to your calendar(s). Then you just need to cc your AI assistant on a meeting request email. Meeting Scheduler


In this example, Amy from will carry out the emails on your behalf. (Amy is a bot, not a real person, and you can call her Andrew if you prefer a male AI assistant!) Amy will check your calendar and only offer times when you are free. Once a time is set, she will send a calendar invitation to both you and the other parties.

The long waiting list for access to their beta programme means that I haven’t had much chance to work with Amy at the time of writing (but I have been accepted, yay!). I have tried a couple of other, similar services. The feedback from my meeting guests was that the AI scheduling bot was often a little pushy. My colleagues found it somewhat confronting trying to schedule in this way.

Use a dedicated scheduling service

If you aren’t someone who would consider yourself an ‘early adopter’ you might be wary of giving an AI access to your calendar. There are several meeting scheduling services available that don’t work with AI.

Examples of these services include Acuity Scheduling and Calendly.

When you grant access to your calendar to one of these services, you will setup rules for when you will be available and when not, preferred days and locations, and preferred meeting duration. The service will then give you a link that you can give to people who wish to make a time to see you. When they go to that website link they will see when you are available and can select a time for themselves.

Many of these services allow you to request documentation, biographical information and other data that will be useful for the meeting. None of this requires you to be involved. As long as you setup rules to protect time that you don’t want to be scheduled, you won’t need to take part in the emails required to settle on a time and venue.


Now that you’ve eliminated and consolidated, and considered whether you could delegate, it’s time to explore how to automate.


Inbox Zero Step 4: Automate

Think about the emails you send each day. How many of them are variations on the same type of email?

If you’re like many people, you will find yourself sending many emails with similar content. Whether it’s responding to requests for information or answering frequently asked questions, did you ever consider whether you could automate the process?

I once heard a productivity guru state that if they ever typed the same email more than once, they considered whether it would be a good idea to save the email as a template. One of the best ways to create re-useable templated responses is a text expansion app like TextExpander.

Hack your Email Tip 7: Save your Snippets

TextExpander is available on Mac and iOS devices, and in 2016 Smile Software released a Windows version. I have been using the Windows version since release and fell in love.

The basic principle is that you assign a short series of characters that, when typed, trigger an expanded piece of text (snippet) to appear instead. The software works anywhere you can type text. This means that you don’t have to have different shortcuts for different apps.

So, for example, when I type ppfs (for ‘Productive Physician full site’ so it’s easy to remember) TextExpander replaces that text string with I use ppe to type my email address (‘Productive Physician email’).

Text expansion isn’t only useful for email. I have a variety of snippets set for medical terminology, as well as my personal details like phone number and address.

When it comes to email, however, you could use TextExpander to develop quite complicated text snippets. I have embedded a video below that demonstrates how using TextExpander could make your life in email easier.


Another way to produce reusable templates for common emails is to use ‘canned responses’.

Canned responses allow you to produce a text snippet or full email that you then save and reuse whenever it is applicable. The benefits are similar to the use of a text expansion utility like TextExpander. Their limitation is that you can only use them in the email service in which you create them.

Automating Frequently Asked Questions

One use for a text expansion application like TextExpander is to create reusable snippets of text that can act as the answer to questions you are frequently asked. You could type out a quick response yourself:

Thank you for your email. I’m afraid I’m not in a position to help you at the minute. Good luck getting the help you need.

Alternatively, you could use a snippet that contains what TextExpander calls ‘fill-ins’. When you trigger a snippet that has a fill-in a pop-up box will appear. You can, for example, enter the name and the subject and have the remainder of the email as above.


TextExpander unfilled

Fill in the person’s details in the fill-in fields.

TextExpander filled in

The result?

Hi John. Thank you for your email about your speaking opportunity. I’m afraid I’m not in a position to help you at the minute. Good luck getting the help you need.

This way your recipient gets an email that you appear to have personalised without it taking a lot of your time to create. If you have a lot of emails that you send in response to questions you could conceivably create snippets that save you hours.


Summary of Inbox Zero Steps 1-4

If you have completed Inbox Zero Steps 1-4 you will be reaping the time benefits already. You will have eliminated unwanted subscriptions, consolidated your email into as few interfaces as possible, delegated any email that you can and automated your responses to save time.

The first four steps have all been ones that you might go through now and then, with the goal being to reduce the total burden of email received and the time spent replying to the email you do need to receive.

Your daily work begins with Step 5: Process. This is a set of best practices that you need to employ every single day.

Still reading? Download a copy of this post as a pdf to read anytime.
You can also have the checklist and workflow diagram, for free!


Inbox Zero Step 5: Process

My approach to processing email is influenced by that of Merlin Mann who, in turn, reports being heavily influenced by the writing of David Allen in his wildly successful book Getting Things Done (GTD).

The diagram below summarises the GTD processing workflow.

Getting Things Done Workflow

I also recommend Episode 15 of Able Business Radio by my friend, Zachary Sexton. Zack was kind enough to allow me to embed some of his material below for ease, but I encourage readers to check out his site and podcast. They’re always filled with useful ideas and suggestions.

Here is the episode, just click the play symbol to listen.


Zack’s workflow is like a modernised version of the GTD workflow and relies heavily on the digital tools he uses to manage his life. Your email inbox is digital: storing reference material online and creating actions in a task manager makes sense.

Merlin Mann, Zachary Sexton and I all recommend processing email in bursts and then closing your email client. Make decisions on what the emails mean to you and then refocus on your other work priorities.

Processing, not checking

Note that you aren’t ‘checking’ your email, you’re ‘processing’ it. Although some might argue this is semantics, words convey meaning. To me, ‘checking’ suggests passivity or acceptance.

Processing suggests action and decisiveness.

Leaving your email client open all day just invites trouble: every new email that appears is like a shiny bauble to distract you from your real work.

So, make a time in the morning and in the afternoon to process your email. Schedule thirty minutes each time. And adopt an email processing workflow.

This is mine:

Productive Physician Inbox Zero Email Processing Workflow

Is it Actionable?

The first question you need to ask when processing your email is: Is it Actionable?

If it isn’t something you need to do, it doesn’t need to to take much more of your time. You only have one more question to answer: Do I need it?

If you won’t ever need this email, delete it! If you might need it in the future, decide whether it gets archived or sent to a reference storage such as Evernote.

For emails that are actionable, you have a further question to answer.

Will it take less than 2 minutes to respond?

There’s no point spending your time creating a task in a to-do list if it’s only going to take you two minutes to answer. And, thanks to your use of canned responses or text expansion saved snippets, you now have lots of emails you can answer in two minutes or less.

If it’s going to take less than two minutes, answer the email and then archive it, send it to reference or delete it.

If it is going to take more than 2 minutes, you have one final question to answer.

Am I the best person to answer this email?

If you aren’t the best person to answer the email, who is? Delegate the email to whomever is most appropriate and move on with processing the remainder of your inbox.

If the email is actionable, is going to take more than two minutes and you’re the best person to respond, it is now a task. And, as a task, it belongs on your to-do list.

Sign up now to download my processing workflow as a pdf.

Note that the final outcome of any of the pathways in my processing workflow is one of the following six options:

  1. Delete
  2. Archive
  3. Reference
  4. Do it now!
  5. Delegate
  6. Create a task

There is no option listed for ‘leave it in my inbox, procrastinate on it for months and then finally make a decision’. Your goal is to decide on each email once, and then move to the next. Try not to skip or leave for later.

Hack your Email Tip 8: Keyboard Shortcuts

I’ve suggested that you should archive an email when it isn’t actionable but you might need it later. There are several ways to make archiving an email as simple as a click or a swipe.

When using the web, you will have access to keyboard shortcuts in apps like Gmail and Windows Live Hotmail. Using a keyboard shortcut means that you can delete or archive emails without even using the mouse.

For Gmail users, turn on Keyboard shortcuts by going into Settings via the gear icon at upper right of the screen:

Gmail Settings

In the ‘General’ tab, scroll down until you find ‘Keyboard shortcuts’ and click the on radio button:

Gmail keyboard shortcuts

Scroll to the very bottom and click ‘Save Changes’. You can now use keyboard shortcuts in Gmail!

Now, after you’ve decided you don’t need to reply but do want to keep it for later, just type ‘e’.

Voila! You have archived the email.

In Outlook and Windows Live Hotmail you will need folders as there isn’t an archiving system. To move an email to a folder click ‘Ctrl + Shift + V’ and a menu will appear asking you to which folder to move it. (If you want to delete just type ‘CTRL + D’.)

For Yahoo Mail, you again need to use folders. The ‘D’ key will open the Move menu.

Note: Keyboard shortcuts are available for many web applications and are not limited to email. A quick Google search will find a list of further shortcuts you can use.

Hack your Email Tip 9: Mail to X

In my workflow above I recommend that you send reference material to online storage (Evernote). Now I’ll show you how to make this easy.

Sending an email for storage in Evernote is as simple as sending any other email. Assuming you have an Evernote account, go to your Account Settings. Scroll down and find the section toward the bottom with the heading ‘Email Notes to’. The email address listed there is the address to which you send your emails.

Email into Evernote

The subject of your email will become the note title. It will default to going to your Evernote inbox, but you can specify the folder by adding ‘@foldername‘ to the subject line.[2]

Similarly, you could set tags using ‘#’ and a reminder using ‘!’.

This will work as long as the order of things in the subject field follows this template:

[Title of Note] ![Reminder Date] @[Folder] #[Tag]

You don’t have to use all of the options, just don’t try putting a tag before a folder.

You can also do this in OneNote.[3]

First, check the email address you used for your account at their Email Settings page.

Email into OneNoteYou will see the address from which you can send to store emails in OneNote. Click on ‘Add another address’ to define other email accounts from which you can send to OneNote.

Then, send any email you want to store to from one of your addresses and it should be safely stored away for reference!

Hack your Email Tip 10: Deeper Integration

The workflow image also suggests sending your tasks to a task manager or to-do list application (e.g. Todoist). Just like with Evernote and OneNote there are ways to do make this quite simple.

If you have a Premium account at Todoist there is an email address for each project as well as even for the comments for a project. You can find the email address for your Inbox by clicking the project actions icon at the right above the list of tasks.

Todoist Project Actions

After the drop-down menu appears select ‘Email tasks to this project’ to get the address.

Once you have the address to send your tasks to, save it in your email client for easy access. Similar to Evernote, the subject line of the email will become the task name. There are also shortcuts that can apply labels, due dates or priorities if you place them in the subject line or email body.[4]

Todoist also has a plugin for Gmail and Outlook that allows you to create a task from an email without leaving the email client.

You can get the Gmail plugin here and the Outlook plugin here. Once you install it you will see a new button in the message view.

Gmail Todoist

Click on ‘Add to Todoist’ and you can add the email directly. You can also apply projects, labels, priorities and due dates.

Now you don’t need to remember the email address or the subject codes as you can create the task directly!

Hack your Email Tip 11: Swipe Actions

Remember that I mentioned processing email on a mobile device near the start of this post? One of the reasons that I love Newton is that you can connect it to other web apps like Evernote and Todoist, as well as a host of others.[5]

The other reason is that you can define four different swipe actions for the inbox list screen that allow you to do different things with the emails. You have the option of half or full swipe either left or right.

I have assigned a full left swipe as ‘Mark as Spam’. Full right swipe means ‘Delete’. Half left means ‘Snooze’ and half right means ‘Move to folder’. Here is a view of my settings screen.

Newton Inbox Swipe

When I am processing email on my phone I have four options for dealing with an email accessible by sweeping my finger.

I have written to Newton support asking if they can create an option to use a supercharger for a swipe action. This would make Newton my perfect email processing machine. I would replace ‘snooze’ and ‘move to folder’ with a swipe to Evernote and a swipe to Todoist.

Newton Swipe Actions

Newton can’t yet assign swipes to superchargers like Evernote or Todoist. However, the ability to glance at an email header and swipe it to spam or delete means that I can process a significant proportion of my inbox in around a second per email.

Hack your Email Tip 12: Even Deeper Integration

Most people who have been online in recent years will have heard of services like IFTTT and Zapier. These services hook into many different web applications and provide links between them.

This can be incredibly powerful.

Once you grant access to Gmail for IFTTT, for example, you could trigger an action just by starring an email. That action could be to copy the email to Evernote or store it in Dropbox. It might be to add the sender’s details to a CRM.

IFTTT is advertising that they now link over 500 different services, while Zapier claims over 750 integrated applications! Microsoft has a competitor called Flow which, despite being a long way behind in terms of the raw number of services (currently 159), provides deep integration with many Microsoft products.

IFTTT is free. Zapier and Flow both have a free tier that includes many apps but limits users to fewer steps in each automation. (They also reserve some applications for premium accounts.)

It is easy to get started: the simplest to understand is IFTTT. You can sign up and have an integration linking your Gmail with Evernote or a task manager within minutes.

Alternative applications

I prefer Evernote for reference material and Todoist for my task list, but you might prefer alternatives. I’ve already shown you how to email into OneNote for storage. Dropbox doesn’t have this facility, but you can use IFTTT, Zapier or Flow.

Google Drive is another popular choice for Gmail users, and you can save attachments directly from within Gmail. Alternatively, all of IFTTT, Zapier and Flow can link with Drive to enable storage of your emails for later.

If you prefer Box for your storage, you can email in or use any of IFTTT, Zapier or Flow.

There are many alternatives to Todoist for task management. One of the most popular is Trello. You can email into Trello[6], or hook into it with Flow, Zapier or IFTT. You can access Toodledo in all four ways as well[7], as you can Asana[8] and Wunderlist[9].

Summary of Inbox Zero Step 5

Processing our email is one of the main areas where most of us can improve. Some fundamental principles are important to reiterate:

  1. Processing is an active word and is much better to use than ‘checking’. It suggests ownership and positivity.
  2. You should process your email two to three times per work day in short bursts. This allows us to focus on what is important, not on others’ priorities.
  3. Processing follows a simple algorithm with only two or three questions for each email (depending on the path through the workflow).
  4. The processing workflow doesn’t allow for deciding to leave the email in your inbox for another time.

Be diligent and decisive. Take control of your inbox by making two or three decisions and moving on to the next email until you’re clear.

Become An Email Ninja
Want to take control of your email?

Sign up for a course and learn more techniques to help you manage your inbox.

Become an Email Ninja from Flipping Heck.


Inbox Zero Step 6: Be a good Email Citizen

Now that you’re getting more efficient with your email, if would be great if you could lead the way for others. By demonstrating good email behaviours, your friends and colleagues might learn some new techniques that in turn make your own life a little bit easier.

In Cal Newport’s masterpiece Deep Work, the author discusses his approach to email. Although I suspect that I wouldn’t get away with behaving like he reports he does, there is a section of his book that has been of great use to me. In his fourth rule (Drain the Shallows) his second tip is:

Do More Work When You Send or Reply to Emails

Newport suggests taking a moment to consider what the intended outcome is for each email exchange. Then you need to answer the following question. What is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?

Once you’ve answered this question for yourself, replace a quick response with one that takes the time to describe the process you identified, points out the current step, and emphasizes the step that comes next.

He provides several example responses:

“I’d love to grab coffee. Let’s meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I listed two days next week when I’m free. For each day, I listed three times. If any of those day and time combinations work for you, let me know. I’ll consider your reply confirmation for the meeting. If none of those date and time combinations work, give me a call at the number below and we’ll hash out a time that works.”


“I suggest we schedule a phone call for a month from now for this purpose. Below I listed some dates and times when I’m available for a call. When you respond with your notes, indicate the date and time combination that works best for you and we’ll consider that reply confirmation for the call. I look forward to digging into this problem.”

His theory is that more time spent up front will reduce the amount of back and forward. This will save time overall by reducing the number of emails he has to process.

Consider when you send your Emails

Do you like getting an email from your boss at 8 pm? If you’re a conscientious worker, you might well think about answering the email irrespective of whether it was sent during your rostered working hours. However, this could take your attention away from other things that are important to you.

What about 10 pm? Or, midnight? Where’s the line when sending an email becomes intrusive and counter-productive?

(Of course, I would suggest you shouldn’t be processing your emails at 8 pm, 10 pm or midnight. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t know your boss had sent you one.)

If receiving such an email is likely to provoke angst for you, your next job is to consider whether you are responsible for doing this to others. I imagine that many of us have done this without thinking of the impact on the recipients.

If you want your colleagues to be refreshed and effective when they are at work, it might be worth deciding whether any email you might send out-of-hours will help them or harm.

One way to ensure you don’t intrude is to use an email scheduling tool. Boomerang for Gmail and Outlook is a well-known example. Among its many capabilities is being able to schedule an email to send later.

If you are working at night and writing emails to colleagues, might it be better to schedule the email to send at 8 am the next morning?

Think Twice before you Reply All

One of my greatest bug-bears is the profligate use of ‘Reply All’. As Christina outlined in our interview above, it should only take a moment to consider whether your response needs to go to everyone on the cc line.

If not everyone needs to see your response, don’t Reply All. Send your emails with intent, not as a reflex.

I have started to reduce my own participation in email chains in which there is heavy use of Reply All. I don’t think they are that effective in resolving whatever issue is under discussion.


So far you have eliminated unwanted newsletters and consolidated your email accounts and interfaces. Then, you considered delegating some of your emails and automated your frequent responses. You have developed a processing workflow you will use several times per day. Finally, you’ve considered how your email behaviours impact on others.

The final step is to close your email client.

You’re a keen reader! Download a copy of my processing workflow.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf and an Inbox Zero checklist.


Inbox Zero Step 7: Close your Email Client

Even if you do get your inbox down to zero every time you process your emails, you need to go ahead and close your email client or browser tab anyway.


Because every time a new email arrives you’re at risk of distraction from the more important work you should be doing.

Keeping in mind that when Merlin Mann defined the term Inbox Zero he stated that:

It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox – it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox

Many email clients will have a visual or auditory alert to say that new email has arrived. Their purpose is to demand your attention and drag your focus back to your inbox. Don’t let them hijack your brain like that!

The safest way to keep your brain out of your inbox is to close the inbox.

What if you need to access archived email for the work you’re doing? Well, you can try your best to turn off all new email alerts, although I suspect this won’t be enough. The lure of the shiny new email waiting for you to read it is likely to be too great.

Hack your Email Tip 13: Inbox Pause

Boomerang recently released a new feature called Inbox Pause. Inbox Pause will move all incoming emails into a separate folder. You can even hide that folder from view if you’re worried about seeing an unread count!

When you activate Inbox Pause you will see a pop-up offering several options. These include an Auto-Responder, the aforementioned ability to hide the label and the option to Unpause automatically at a certain time.

Inbox Pause Boomerang

The paid subscriptions add delivery exceptions for people whose email you want to allow and scheduled delivery into the inbox.

The really fantastic thing? Boomerang intercepts your email irrespective of how you access your account. Even if I access my email on my mobile using Newton, my inbox remains paused. I won’t see new emails until I unpause it.

Since using Inbox Pause, I’ve been able to keep my Gmail browser tab open at my desk while I work, without risking distraction. The best of both worlds!

Hack your Email Tip 14: Turn off notifications

I wear a smartwatch as well as carrying my mobile phone. With both set to the vibrate mode during business hours, I often feel like I spend half my time checking on yet another buzzing sensation in my breast pocket or wrist!

I’ve recommended the use of mobile apps for processing your email. It would be neglectful not to mention the impact their notifications and alerts can have on your concentration and attention. One of the best things you can do is turn off notifications for your email app.

iOS and Android deal with notifications differently, so the steps you need to take will depend on the device you carry. It isn’t hard to find the information online: a quick Google search is often all that is required:

Android – Email notifications, Unread Email BadgeAll notifications

iOS – Email notifications, Unread Email BadgeAll notifications

I can’t tell you how much better I feel without having my phone or watch buzzing me every time new emails arrive. This is one of the highest yield setting changes I think you can make.

Hack your Email Tip 15: Tell people how to reach you

As Dr John Jurica from The VITAL Physician Executive points out in the comments below, if you are only going to process your email intermittently it is important to ensure people adjust their expectations of when you will see their email and respond. He suggests using an autoresponder, and I think it’s a great idea.

You can create an autoresponder in Gmail by going into Settings then General. Scroll to the bottom to find ‘Vacation responder’.

Vacation Responder Gmail

Then, choose when you want the autoresponder to fire and what message it will send. Ideally, you would provide a way to contact you urgently if required, as well as a timeline for when to expect a response.

You will find instructions for doing the same in Outlook via Google.


If you’re still with me you’ve eliminated unwanted emails, consolidated your email accounts, delegated some of your emails and automated common replies. You’re using a processing workflow two or three times daily and you’re being kind to others. Lastly, you’re closing your email client or browser and you’ve switched off mobile notifications. Now you can concentrate on more important work!



I hope this ultimate guide to managing your email will help you achieve Inbox Zero.

What is Inbox Zero? Inbox Zero is a state of mind. I think of it as a way to maintain your attention to focus on what is important to you.

If you follow the steps detailed above you will have dramatically reduced the amount of irrelevant email you receive. You will also have developed strategies for dealing with the emails you do need to process.

Good luck as you plan how to use all your free time.


Has this post been helpful? Do you have any other email management strategies that might help people achieve Inbox Zero? I’d love you to leave a comment below!

References   [ + ]


How to Procrastinate on Purpose & Define YOUR Priorities

April 20, 2017 in Books

There are fundamental principles that apply to all productivity strategies, tools or rules.

It is critical that anyone wanting to increase their personal productivity pays attention to those principles.

But, what are they?

  • We all have 1440 minutes each day.
  • We all have our own range of personal and interpersonal commitments and obligations to juggle, and these can often overwhelm our ability to choose how we focus our energies.
  • If we don’t choose how we spend our time, we are at risk of wasting it.

In his book Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time, Rory Vaden has created a primer on personal productivity that relies on common sense.

Procrastinate on Purpose could become required reading for those wishing to create success.

Who is Rory Vaden?

Rory Vaden is the co-founder of Southwestern Consulting, a global consulting company that helps clients improve their customer experience.

He is also the author of Take the Stairs, in addition to Procrastinate on Purpose.

Finally, he hosts a podcast The Action Catalyst with Rory Vaden as well as being the author of a successful blog.

What is Procrastinate on Purpose?

Procrastinate on Purpose is Vaden’s distillation of his personal approach to productivity.

I have to admit that I put off reading this book for some time, due to the title. I still find Procrastinate on Purpose to be an obscure name for a book about personal productivity, but am glad that I eventually got around to reading it!

Vaden outlines a common sense approach to understanding the value of time, and then his five-step funnel for considering how best to utilise that time.

This is a really long post… it’s almost 5000 words. Download a copy to read later.
I’ll also provide a list of 25 podcast episodes featuring Rory Vaden discussing Procrastinate on Purpose.

The Truth About Time

In Part One of Procrastinate on Purpose, Vaden outlines his thoughts on why so many ‘time management’ or ‘efficiency’ strategies don’t produce the desired results.

He introduces the concept of ‘Multipliers’, who are people who seem capable of multiplying their time.

The truly successful people around him seem to think differently about their workload. He quoted one as saying[1]:

You reach a point where you realize how futile it is to expend energy sharing or even thinking about how ‘busy’ you are. Once you get to that place, you shift to focusing that energy productively into getting the things done rather than worrying about the fact that you have to do them.


He suggests that Multipliers take responsibility for their situations and life:

You are not a victim. You are in charge. You are capable. You are powerful enough to decide what you will and won’t do with your time.

To Multipliers, Vaden argues, the outcome is what is most important:

To a Multiplier, it is ultimately only about producing their desired results.

After making it clear that it is the mindset of his Multipliers that defines their success, Vaden goes on to discuss productivity strategy more broadly.

He suggests that the majority of time management advice is about improving efficiency. The problem is that an increased level of efficiency will still leave more that can be done.

Those who still believe that more hours or more efficiency is the ultimate answer to their workload challenges have sentenced themselves to perpetual stress because they haven’t yet acknowledged that it is a never-ending wheel…

This leads Vaden to conclude that time management should not be the goal, but ‘self-management’ which will lead to much better results:

  • You can choose what you do today with the time you’ve been given.
  • You can decide which things are worth investing yourself in and which are not.
  • You can choose to either be focused on things that matter or allow yourself to be swept away in a sea of distraction.

The Covey Matrix

To illustrate to his argument, he refers to Stephen Covey’s ‘Time-Management Matrix’. This separates tasks along two axes defined by Importance and Urgency.

Stephen Covey’s ‘Time-Management Matrix’


This leads to the four quadrants that so many students of productivity will recognise:

  • Important and Urgent
  • Important but Not Urgent
  • Not Important but Urgent
  • Not Important and Not Urgent

All of the time management and efficiency techniques in the world still can’t make more time, however, and Vaden argues that it is time multiplication that is what sets apart the successful from the rest.

He illustrates this point with a juggler. A juggler can juggle more balls (efficiency) or juggle the ones he has faster (time management). This leads to our options being:

Go as fast as you can for as long as you can until you burn out, or
Let everything crash!


Vaden argues that the addition of a third axis to Covey’s Matrix allows for a different calculation, that of Significance.

If Urgency is “how soon does this matter?”
And Importance is “how much does this matter?”
Then Significance is “how long is this going to matter?”

It is consideration of the significance of the tasks that separates the decisions made by Multipliers. This is what Vaden describes as the core message of his book:

You multiply your time by spending time on things today that will give you more time tomorrow.

He goes on to note:

As I start to make considerations of Significance, I start paying more attention to how spending my time today will affect tomorrow.

There are things I can do today that will make tomorrow better. There are choices that I can make now that will create more space later.

In the first part of his book, Vaden makes a cogent argument that consideration of the longer term significance of tasks must become part of the weighing of priority.

In the second, he explores each step in his ‘Focus Funnel’ that leads to time multiplication.

Focus Funnel Procrastinate on Purpose


The 5 Permissions

As I stated in the introduction to this piece, consideration of the fundamental principles of productivity is critical to understanding how to improve.

The 5 Permissions outlined by Vaden could be known by other names or be prioritised in different ways, but they are fundamental productivity concepts for a reason.

Let’s see what each principle (Permission) is…

Eliminate: The Permission to Ignore

Vaden argues that the first step of becoming a Multiplier is asking the question:

What are all of the things that I can just eliminate?

What can I stop doing? What doesn’t need to be done?

The power of stopping doing the things that don’t need to be done isn’t only in freeing up time that day. You free up time every day moving forward.

Vaden asks us to consider the power of Elimination across a broad spectrum of tasks and activities, to multiply our time available for tasks of Significance.

These include:

  • Re-Decision (Reviewing a decision where we know what the right decision is and we should have already made the decision before.)
  • Watching TV
  • Unnecessary meetings
  • Long e-mails (A long e-mail is almost a flashing sign that you need to have an in-person conversation.)
  • Unnecessary change
  • Intermittent change
  • Confrontation e-mails (Never send anything negative or even constructive about someone over e-mail.)
  • Doing other people’s work
  • Gossip
  • Sharing your opinion
  • Unreasonable people
  • Thinking about where you’re going next
  • Explanations versus experiences (If you are a leader of any type, then here are two words that will magically multiply your time: Show me.)
  • Unnecessary double-checking
  • Custom versus leveraged (Create things in a way that they can be used over and over again.)
  • Over-volunteering

I know that this list resonated with me at several points and that there is lots of time I could gain by eliminating these time-wasters!

Saying No

Another strategy for Elimination that Vaden suggests is learning to say ‘No’.

You are always saying no to something. Any time you say yes to one thing, you are simultaneously saying no to something else.

He notes that it is better when working with others to be clear about when and how you can help them. A ‘Maybe’ leaves things unclear, which could lead to letting the other person down.

A ‘No’, on the other hand, is clear and actually allows that person to get on with the task or seek alternate assistance. This is a far kinder way of dealing with others than letting them think you’ll help by saying ‘Maybe’ when you mean ‘No’.

People can take no. But they want to be treated with dignity. They want to be treated honestly.

This leads to his first permission…

The Permission to Ignore

As in:

I give myself permission to Ignore, and I will learn to say no to the things that don’t matter so that I can say yes to the things that do.

Want to hear more about Procrastinate on Purpose? Download a list of 25 podcast episodes featuring Rory Vaden discussing the book.
You can also have a copy of this post as a pdf to read later.

Automate: The Permission to Invest

Vaden spends a lot of time in this chapter discussing various business costs that might not be immediately obvious. These include opportunity costs, hidden costs and so on.

The most useful element of this chapter is the comparison of time with money. The use of time can be viewed as an expenditure. After all, we only have so much time available.

Thus, anything that we can automate to reduce our need to spend that time in the future is saving us time. And this time saved increases over time exactly as compound interest does.

Multipliers, who live in a world of evaluating everything based on Significance — how long this decision is going to matter — are constantly thinking longer term. It’s almost as if they are making a perpetual account for compounding interest.

All of this made me think of this wonderful comic from xkcd:

xkcd: Is It Worth the Time?


This leads to the second permission…

The Permission to Invest

If you are investing money, you are making. If you are spending money, you are losing money.

The investment of time now to improve a system, workflow or automation reaps the reward of increased time later. Time spent doing something that can be automated is time you spend again and again.

In fact:

Every moment that passes that you don’t Automate something that could be, you are exponentially losing future time.

Vaden’s examples of things that you could automate include:

  • Frequently asked questions (FAQs): A simple idea that any small business or big business can do is to invest some time into an easy-to-use, easy-to-find, well-thought-out list of answers to FAQs.
  • Disorganized re-creation: It baffles me how much time is spent in many organizations re-creating things that already exist.
  • Online bill pay: Spend a couple hours setting up all of your regular monthly bills to be paid automatically.
  • Data backup sync: A person calculating only with Urgency says, “I don’t have time to stop and do anything,” but someone considering Significance says, “The one thing I always have time for is to back up my data.”
  • Social media management: If you’re not already, you should be using a tool like Hootsuite or SocialOomph that allows you to schedule tweets, blog posts, Facebook updates and so on.
  • Past client follow-up: A common consulting project for us as of late has been helping companies craft an ongoing customer appreciation strategy.
  • Online learning: With the emergence of online learning platforms you can create training videos once today on everything someone on your team needs to know to be successful.
  • Drop shipping: This is another one of the beauties of the modern day world.

His conclusion is that:

Anything you create a process for today saves you time tomorrow.

Delegate: The Permission of Imperfect

Vaden’s argument in this chapter is that if you aren’t the only person who can do a task, it is better for someone else to do it.

To be a Multiplier is to be a master delegator.

This will have the effect of freeing up that time for you to do the things no-one else can do.

Again, Vaden explores several accounting terms in this chapter. The more relevant in personal productivity terms is ‘return on time invested’ (ROTI). ROTI explains why throwing up your hands while trying to teach someone to do something and saying that it would be faster if you did it yourself is a false economy.

He quotes an executive who suggests that allowing 30x the task duration to teach it to someone else is about right. In other words, if a task takes five minutes for you to do then you should allow 150 minutes to train someone to do it.

The false economy, therefore, is in saying that ‘I should just do it myself as it isn’t worth the 145 minutes extra to teach someone else’. If you do this task every day, you will spend 250 working days per year doing this five-minute task, which is 1250 minutes each year. If you teach someone else to do it you save 1100 minutes the first year, and then 1250 every year after that.

This leads to the third permission…

The Permission of Imperfect

You have to learn to be okay with things just being okay. You have to embrace the idea that someone else might not be able to do it as well as you—at first.

Vaden reports on noticing the behaviour of Multipliers was in enabling those around them to contribute.

The leaders around them started to multiply into other leaders. Things somehow found a way to get done. All the people around chipped in and found a way.

He also shows how this affects not just our workplace performance but our personal lives as well. He notes many examples of how Multipliers employ others to do things for them that they don’t like doing or aren’t expert in. Some of the roles he suggests you consider employing others to do for you include:

  • Office assistant
  • Business coach
  • Accountant
  • Bookkeeper
  • Financial planner
  • Lawyer
  • Insurance agent
  • Real estate agent
  • Graphic designer
  • Travel coordinator
  • House cleaner
  • Nanny
  • Gardener
  • Grocery (or personal) shopper
  • Mechanic
  • Personal assistant
  • Handyman
  • Driver
  • Chef

He concludes that:

Whether it’s in your professional life or your personal life, the size of your success is usually determined by the strength of your team. So fill in your gaps and supplement your weaknesses by bringing on other people. Invest the time (and money) to train them properly. Give yourself and them the permission of Imperfect and start making progress by doing more together as a team.

Procrastinate: The Permission of Incomplete

Finally, we get to ‘Procrastinate’ which is the word that so put me off reading this book! It turns out that Vaden doesn’t really encourage procrastination as I had expected, more that he wants readers to learn to complete their tasks at the most appropriate time.

A Multiplier knows that it’s not just about what to do, or how much to do. It’s also about when.

If we can’t Eliminate, Automate or Delegate a task, it belongs to us. The only decision is when to do it. This leads to his critical question: “Can this wait until later?”

He notes that this isn’t intended to lead to poor performance of the task.

If waiting until later would actually cause you to sacrifice the integrity of whatever the task is at hand, then the answer to “Can this wait until later?” wouldn’t be yes, it would be no.

Vaden describes the folly of acting too soon and then finding that the situation has changed and your completed work now needs revision. He calls this ‘unexpected change cost’.

You definitely don’t want to be late. But you also don’t want to be too early. A Multiplier works to be precisely on time.

This leads to the fourth permission…

The Permission of Incomplete

He suggests that sometimes the act of waiting to do something at the right time prevents you having to waste time re-doing work that you’ve already completed.

This permission also applies to helping or leading others. Many times, colleagues or direct reports will ask for advice for resolving an urgent problem. Vaden suggests that often those problems with either resolve themselves or be resolved without your input if you give people time to figure it out for themselves.

The last way in which Vaden suggests procrastinating is with batching of tasks.


Doing similar tasks in a batch will reduce the ‘intermittent change cost’ of doing a series of small, unrelated tasks one after the other. This can lead to you completing things far more efficiently than when switching among differing tasks.

Examples of opportunities for batching include:

  • E-mail: You might be nervous about the idea of waiting a few hours to check e-mail because you have the fear that “my customers expect to hear from me right away!” No, they don’t. That is your fear talking.
  • Meeting talk-topics: A very large number of the e-mails that we get are questions or discussions that can wait and would be better handled in a meeting.
  • Paperwork: If you’re in sales and you’re doing proposals or paperwork during peak times of the day and you believe that is the “right time” to be doing them—you are kidding yourself. What you really have is “creative avoidance” and “call reluctance”
  • Any type of shopping: If you don’t yet have a personal assistant or grocery shopper, then keep a running list of what you need and delay as long as possible your trip to go shopping or to spend time surfing online.
  • Phone calls: If you have a bunch of phone calls to make, try to group them together one after the other in your day.
  • Paying bills: If you don’t yet have it Automated (or you don’t have the ability) and you don’t have a bookkeeper, then pay all your bills at once
  • Thank-you notes: Unless there is some overarching Urgent consideration, let them pile up for a couple weeks and then write them all out.

He concludes that:

There is no limit to the magnitude and significance of understanding the value of patience and that timing really does matter.

Concentrate: The Permission to Protect

After working through the ‘focus funnel’ from Eliminate, Automate, Delegate and Procrastinate, you finally get to Concentrate. This is where you do the work.

Concentrate is a verb that instructs us “to bring all efforts, faculties, activities, etc., to bear on one thing or activity.”

Concentrate, as a noun, is “an intense form of something,” such as juice concentrate.

Vaden suggests that Multipliers are quickly able to assess the long-term significance of a task. They are then able to concentrate on the most concentrated use of their time.

In the Eliminate stage, it was, “Is this task something I can live without?”
In the Automate stage, it was, “Can this task be systematized?”
In the Delegate stage, it was, “Can this task be performed by someone else?”
In the Procrastinate stage, it was, “Can this wait until later?”
If the answer to each of the previous four questions is no, then—and only then—you finally have something that is a priority.

You now know the timing is right. At this point it is time to act. It is time to pull the trigger.


Vaden spends time discussing the meaning of priority. He notes that if you are spending time doing something that is by definition what you have decided is your priority at that moment.

He suggests that if you aren’t doing what you consider to be your priority at that moment, you need to put your current activity into the funnel and Eliminate/Automate/Delegate/Procrastinate/Complete it. Then you can get back to doing what you think you should be doing to move things forward.

The question he asks us to ask ourselves is:

Is what I’m doing right now the next most Significant use of my time? Is it the thing that is making the most out of the available time that you have? Is it the thing that is enabling you at that moment to be your highest self?

Which brings around the fifth permission…

The Permission to Protect

Vaden suggests that it is critical to give yourself the permission to be your highest self, to protect your time to do what only you can do best.

Once you’ve worked down the focus funnel, the next most important task needs to be completed and you need to Protect the time you need to do so.

If something is the next most Significant thing related to your dream, you have to Protect it, you have to do it, and you have to do it now!

The Next Step

Part 3 of Procrastinate on Purpose discusses how to take the lessons learned from Part 2 and embed them within the culture of your workplace.

Vaden asks what our offices would look like if everyone applied these principles, got the right things done and enabled those around them to get their right things done.

He concludes that Multipliers need to teach these principles to others around them so that they can become Multipliers.

Finally, he lists several activities that will have massive yields outside of the office. These include:

  • Date night: You have to make your marriage the priority regularly.
  • Debt free: The number one thing that will make you money in your life is your personal income.
  • Stay healthy: If multiplying your time is spending time on things today that create more time tomorrow, then what could be a more directly obvious application of the principle than staying healthy!
  • Training and personal development: Your mind is the most powerful tool you have, but it’s only as capable as what you invest in it.
  • Treating people right: To the extent possible, have amazing customer service.
  • Integrity: There is no limit or measure to the incredible multiplying effect that your integrity has on everything you do.
  • Faith: Faith is choosing to trust that what is happening now is for a greater glory later on.
  • Good early decisions: It seems that there is the same compounding effect on choices that there is on money.

Additional Resources:

Still reading? Nice work! Download a copy of this post to read later.
You can also have a list of 25 podcast episodes featuring Rory Vaden discussing Procrastinate on Purpose.

What could you gain by Eliminating tasks from your to-do list? What about Automating or Delegating to others? How might your work and, more importantly, your life look if you Concentrated on the activities that really move things forward rather than just on maintenance?


Since reading Procrastinate on Purpose I have been struck by how many things I do each day that don’t help me move my life forward. Whether it is in my work or personal life, there are myriad activities that I could Eliminate, Automate or Delegate.


The obvious example here is email. Everyone has email. And most people complain about email.

Vaden reports on internal data from a study Southwestern Consulting conducted that found that the average executive receives 116 emails each day. When I wake each morning I usually have somewhere between 40 – 50 emails in my inbox. That doesn’t account for my two work email inboxes.

However, Eliminating email altogether is impossible in many workplaces. The ‘productivity guru’ fad of suggesting using messaging apps like ‘Slack’ is all well and good, but what if you don’t control the workplace, your workplace’s IT infrastructure or culture?

I know that I cannot transition my hospital to using Slack. I am stuck with email.

What I can do is try to reduce the amount of email I receive.

There are many tools that can help you reduce your email but there are principles that you need to consider here as well. Firstly, what are the critical emails that you must read and/or respond to each day? Secondly, what are the emails that you would like to read and/or respond to at some stage? Finally, what don’t you need and can, therefore, be deleted or eliminated altogether?

A lot of tools focus on unsubscribing you from mailing lists and newsletters. The best place to start is with your own email habits.

Step 1: Assign time to process email

Don’t leave your email client open on your computer desktop and expect to get any real work done. You will get sucked in by the constant updates of new messages and unread notifications that are built into the software.

Set a time on your calendar twice daily to process email and close your email software in between times.

Step 2: When processing email, apply the two-minute rule

Can you answer the email in two minutes or less? Do it. If not, consider making it a task to complete later, and then continue processing your email to zero.

Keep in mind the switching cost that Vaden describes and batch your email. Don’t get sucked into it and surface two hours later to find half your day is gone.

Step 3: Unsubscribe from what you can

This is where tools can help. This recent article at PCWorld lists three.

There’s even a book… Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done by Jocelyn Glei.

Of course, email isn’t the only thing that you could Eliminate. I am currently working through Vaden’s list of suggestions and trying to eliminate some activities that bring no value to my life. I am sure you can think of many things that you could drop altogether that would have no negative impact on your life and might bring positive impacts in time saved/gained.

Note: Since publishing this post I’ve written an Ultimate Guide to Managing Email that contains far more information and many, many tips for reaching Inbox Zero.


Again, there is all manner of things I could Automate in order to reduce my time spent on busy work and free up time for work of Significance.

As a doctor, I spend quite a lot of time researching the medical literature and keeping up with my fields of interest. I need to Invest some time in this area to reduce time spent looking for new publications. I should follow my own advice and make the medical literature come to me.

In my personal life, I can find bills that can be paid by direct debit from my bank account so that I don’t have to spend the time to pay them. Budgeting is a weakness of mine, and I need to look into the applications that are available that pull in all my banking so this is in one place when I need it. This article series by my friend Marina Darlow is a good starting point.

Spending time on social media? There are apps for that.

Tracking your diet and exercise. Apps for that too.

Get data from one app into another. Apps for that as well!

In fact, the modern world makes it easier than ever to Automate some activities that would have been either laborious or impossible in the past.

What could you Automate today that you won’t need to do tomorrow?


This is a harder one for me, as I don’t have access to an assistant in my workplace. I have started using some Virtual Assistant (VA) services to help me with this website, however, and have had good experiences so far.

Many productivity experts suggest using VAs in place of executive or personal assistants, but for reasons of concern about patient confidentiality I have been reluctant to use a VA for my work.

I am working on becoming better at asking collaborators and colleagues to perform tasks and then trusting that they will happen. For many perfectionists, this is a hard skill to learn, but I can already see the benefits in terms of multiplying my capacity by involving others. Collaboration can be a powerful way to work more effectively.

There must be ways in which I could get some of my ‘life administration’ tasks performed by someone else. Perhaps I’ll look into some help with gardening, or maybe with house cleaning.

Finally, I have been exploring home automation in my free time and look forward to the day when I can ask my house to do things and they’ll be done, or, even better, when my house does them for me without even needing my involvement. A combination of Automation and Delegation that makes my life easier would be very welcome indeed!


I hope you can see the power in the fundamental principles of personal productivity that Rory Vaden has outlined in his excellent book Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time.

If you are a productivity expert these suggestions might seem obvious. For many of us, the book will reinforce our understanding of some of the core pillars of productivity while providing new insights into others.

I recommend reading the book for yourself, and then considering what you might Eliminate, Automate, Delegate and Procrastinate. Then, and only then, can you Concentrate on what is important and significant.

Rating: Five Stars


Have you read Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time? Will you? Can you think of anything you could Eliminate, Automate or Delegate? Let us know in the comments below.

References   [ + ]

1. All quotes from Vaden, Rory. Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Create a Personal Mission Statement for the Life YOU Want

February 23, 2017 in Development, Featured

What is all the fuss about creating your personal mission statement??

This guide will help you to understand:

  • What a personal mission statement is
  • Why having a personal mission statement can be so valuable
  • How to write a personal mission statement
  • What to do with your mission statement once you’re done

It is the synthesis of my findings after researching this topic and developing my own mission.

I hope you will find it useful as you pursue your self-improvement journey.n

What is a Personal Mission Statement?

Your mission statement is like a roadmap for where you want to go and how you want to get there.

It can guide you in your daily decision making, by giving you a set of principles or core values that can help you decide:

  • what you want to do,
  • how you want to act, and
  • what you will prioritise.

You have to make sure that you allocate your resources in a way that is consistent with your priorities. You have to make sure that your own measures of success are aligned with your most important concern. And you have to make sure that you’re thinking about all these in the right time frame—overcome the natural tendency to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term.[1]

Want a worksheet to help you create your own Personal Mission Statement? Download one today for free.
I’ll even throw in a copy of this post to download for future reference

When you create a personal mission statement, you identify your most important values and beliefs, consider how they interact with your long-term goals. As a result you can realign your daily priorities and actions.

Personal Mission Statement - Stephen Covey


Why should you have a Personal Mission Statement?

Developing your personal mission statement can be one of the most rewarding, satisfying, illuminating and challenging processes you can go through.

At the end of the process, you will have reflected long and hard on what you believe and why you believe it. Consequently, you will know what you want to be, do and achieve, and how the outcome will look.

There is as much value in the act of creating or refreshing your mission statement as in having one.

Writing or reviewing a mission statement changes you because it forces you to think through your priorities deeply, carefully, and to align your behavior with your beliefs. [2]

Once you’re finished, you will have a set of guiding principles that reflect your deepest truths and are capable of answering your greatest doubts.

How to write a Personal Mission Statement

Creating your mission statement could take weeks or months. It requires introspection, reflection, review and revision. Considering you are trying to capture your very essence, it isn’t surprising that it might take multiple rewrites to get to the end product.

There are many resources available online that can guide you through the process. A great starting point is Stephen Covey’s famous book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Roles and goals give structure and organized direction to your personal mission. If you don’t yet have a personal mission statement, it’s a good place to begin. [3]

In starting my period of reflection and creation, however, I relied heavily on the book A Personal Mission Statement: Your Road Map to Happiness by Michal Stawicki. Stawicki is a personal development blogger I highly recommend. You can read more of his writings at

In his book, Stawicki notes that his ‘recipe for making a personal mission statement is: examine yourself to the verge of insanity; use imagination; write everything down’.

Examine Yourself

Stawicki lists 27 different areas you should consider when assessing yourself, with examples including:

Identify the most important roles you perform or want to perform in the future

What is the meaning of your everyday work?

What do you consider your greatest failure? [4]

I can report from my self-assessment that often these thoughts will provoke other topics or themes, and therefore I wouldn’t consider Stawicki’s list definitive. Feel free to follow flights of fancy but make sure to keep good notes!

Another way to get some inspiration in this part of the process is to try using the ‘Build a Mission Statement’ app at Franklin Covey. This simple web form will walk you through considering your passions, skills and talents. It will also guide you through a visioning process, whereby you answer simple questions that might reveal profound truths. Furthermore, they also provide several personal mission statement examples, including material from Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and anonymous entries as well. Get inspired here.

Once you have spent time considering your values, goals, talents, passions, limitations and regrets, you will be able to move on to the next stage in Stawicki’s recipe.

You might need a worksheet to help you create your Personal Mission Statement. Download one now!


Use Your Imagination

Stawicki suggests a visualisation process for this part of his recipe and provides several prompts:

Imagine you only have six months to live. How would it change your actions?

Visualise the end of your present career. What contributions, what achievements will you want to have made in your field?

Visualise how your life will be in five, ten and twenty years from now, if you don’t make any significant decisions for all those years. Do you want your life to look like this? [5]

Among the many other imaginative tasks he sets, Stawicki finishes by asking you to write your own eulogy. If anything is going to provoke you to consider what you will achieve in life, it is likely to be writing out the words you would like people to use to describe you and your contribution to their lives!

Write Everything Down

The raw material that you generate in following the above process could come to pages of notes, scribbles and diagrams. Some might come up with charts, or include images from magazines like when creating a vision board. Whatever materials you generate you will need to capture them in their entirety.

I know that I often forget real moments of insight when listening to a podcast when driving, for example. I always wish I had captured the thought somehow so that it wasn’t lost forever.

This process of self-appraisal and imagining will generate all kinds of thoughts, but they are easily forgotten unless recorded.

Chiselling your Personal Mission Statement out of the Raw Material

The final step in Stawicki’s book is to take the ideas, thoughts, regrets and goals that you have identified and work through them. This process is about considering and selecting the precious few that best represent your character and values.

You could consider each one using headings as guidance, ensuring that each item addresses an important theme or facet of your life. The Franklin Covey web app mentioned above uses the following headings:

I am at my best when…

I will try to prevent…

I will enjoy my work by finding employment where I can…

I will find enjoyment in my personal life through…

I will find opportunities to use my natural talents and gifts such as…

I can do anything I set my mind to. I will…

My life’s journey is…

I will be a person who is…

My most important future contribution to others will be…

I will stop procrastinating and start working on…

I will strive to incorporate the following attributes into my life…

I will constantly renew myself by focusing on the four dimensions of my life… [6]

Stawicki provides a list of the areas of his life that he wanted specifically to address:

  • Love
  • Children
  • Wife
  • Gratitude
  • Failure
  • Achievement
  • Wealth
  • Giving
  • Motivation
  • Following my friends’ examples
  • Being present – focus on Now
  • Self-examination
  • Language
  • Persistence

Ultimately this is your mission statement, and the themes and domains that you choose to specify are yours. The important step is to take the raw material you have generated in self-appraisal and imaginative tasks and work until you have refined, combined or excised your way to a cohesive statement that reflects your innermost beliefs.

Dilbert - Mission Statement

Traps to Avoid

Make your mission statement personal

The critical element of the term ‘personal mission statement’ is personal. This is your mission, so don’t adopt ideas or goals that aren’t truly yours.

There can be a tendency to write what we think should be in a mission statement rather than what ought to be in our mission statement. You will struggle to adopt your statement as your own and live by its ideals if you include things you think should be there rather than those that belong.

Don’t fall into the trap of writing your mission statement to suit someone else. It is designed for your use. Make your mission statement personal.

Use specific language

Another trap is to use language that is non-specific or wishy-washy. The video below of Dan Heath discussing company mission statements captures this trap perfectly:


When I am teaching my medical students about presentation techniques that allow them to effectively and efficiently handover clinical information to their peers or seniors, I always recommend they start using definite terms like ‘I will…’ and ‘I want…’ as soon as possible. I reason that the sooner they sound like they know what they are talking about the sooner others will take them seriously. They are then more likely to involve them in the day-to-day learning opportunities they need.

When asked questions like ‘You’re the intern in the ED, and this patient comes in – what investigations would you like and why?’ medical students will often respond with answers like “well, you could order a chest x-ray??”. They sound far more ready for their role as an intern if they say something like “I will perform a chest x-ray to confirm my suspicion of pneumonia”.

Similarly, the use of concrete language will make your mission statement far more useful and meaningful. By starting your sentences with the word “I” you both personalise your statements and take ownership of the content.

I will be a loving partner and parent

I value ongoing personal development

I will ensure my good health by eating well and taking regular exercise

Last chance… Download a personal mission statement worksheet to help you create your own!
You can also have a copy of this post for later reading.


Personal Mission Statement Examples

Although creating your own Personal Mission Statement isn’t all that hard, sometimes we all need some inspiration to get started.

Here are some examples of personal mission statements that might help get your creative juices flowing.

Example Personal Mission Statement

Example Personal Mission Statement

Example Personal Mission Statement

Personal Mission Statement examples for Students

For my medical colleagues, there are a few publications listed in Pubmed that are relevant.

In Personal mission statement: An analysis of medical students’ and general practitioners’ reflections on personal beliefs, values and goals in life the authors examined medical student submissions of personal mission statements. [7]

Some examples from their paper include:

I will become a responsible, relevant (and) trustworthy doctor. I will put my patients first rather than myself.

To train myself every day to be the best husband, father, son and a [sic] doctor to all those who place their trust in me.

I will study hard, keep learning and growing in order to become a person who can contribute to the society and live a life of dedication.

I will live as a happy and successful person… live a happy, healthy and enjoyable life…

The authors of Promise of Professionalism: Personal Mission Statements Among a National Cohort of Medical Students provide further examples of medical student mission statements. [8] They include:

Let me listen to the best of my abilities, so that I can better understand my patients.

May I be a reservoir for your concern and pain, and may my training and humanity interpret and understand your need.

To remember who I am, to hear my own voice, to not lose part of who I am…

May I never forget, no matter how frustrated I may be at the time, that each patient is someone’s mother/father, sister/brother, son/daughter.

I hope these personal mission statement examples and snippets provide inspiration as you create your own.

Now that I have my Personal Mission Statement, what do I do next?

Your personal mission statement is not a certificate of accomplishment to be put into the drawer. It is supposed to be your lens, starting point, the source of focus. Use it. [9]

There is no point in spending all of the time and mental or emotional energy required to develop a personal mission statement only to discard it and go on with life as before. Hopefully, you wouldn’t want to!

Once you have invested in creating, refining and revising your mission it is important to keep it at the front of your mind. Stawicki suggests many ways to keep reminding yourself of the content of your personal mission statement:

Read it every day. Or even better – read it several times a day. Create a ritual for it.

Meditate upon it. Take a comfortable position. Clear your mind. Breathe deeply. Let it be just you and the words of the mission statement inside your head.

Listen to it. Record your personal mission statement and listen to it any time and any place you want.

Visualize it. This is especially important if you included some future aspirations or desired changes in the mission statement.

Create a vision board. Add some headlines with the words of your mission statement.

Make a mind movie. Make a movie and add the recording of your personal mission statement as a track or add music dear to your heart. [10]

You created a personal mission statement: Use it!

Again, this is your mission statement, so how you use it is entirely up to you. One good idea would be to review it as part of a morning ritual upon rising in the morning. Further, you could develop a short series of affirmations based on the values you describe.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure to keep your mission statement in your mind, so that you can draw upon it daily for guidance.

Finally, don’t hesitate to amend or adjust your mission statement in the months or years ahead. It isn’t a static document but should grow with you.


Developing a personal mission statement can be a rewarding experience that offers insights into what you value in life and therefore provides guidance for the day-to-day decisions we all face.

Although it might not be a short exercise, you could find that it is the best possible investment of your time.


Do you have a personal mission statement? Have you seen examples of personal mission statements that are particularly meaningful? Do you have suggestions for making your mission statement personal? Let us all know in the comments.

References   [ + ]

1. How Will You Measure Your Life? by James Allworth, Karen Dillon, Clayton Christensen
2, 3. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey
4, 5, 9, 10. A Personal Mission Statement: Your Road Map to Happiness by Michal Stawicki
7. Chew et al. Malays Fam Physician. 2014; 9(2): 26–33
8. Rabow et al. Ann Fam Med. 2009 Jul; 7(4): 336–342
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