How to be so damn productive you should be wearing a cape

Updated to Habits, Productivity on August 13, 2015.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

When I teach audiences my Think, Plan, Act model for effective leadership, I always include a number of skills and disciplines to improve productivity.

My theory is pretty obvious: you can’t use new leadership skills if you don’t have the time. So, I teach how to to have more time for what’s important.

I always start with my Plan Like A Pilot model for creating a Flight Plan for each week (read how this works in this post). I also teach one very important discipline. And it’s that discipline, if you use it consistently, that can make you so damn productive you should be wearing a cape.

First, a warning.


What I am about to teach is not a cool app you can download (not yet, anyway), or a form you fill in with your mechanical pencil—it’s a discipline. In other words, you have to practice this discipline for it to work. Kind of like flossing – do it consistently and the reward (‘Look Mom, no cavities!’) shows up later.

The discipline is to be strategically unavailable. Let me explain.

Common thinking is you work harder to get stuff done—more hours, more “open door” time, and more email gets you more progress. Bollocks.

When you are strategically unavailable you can think, plan, and create the kind of solutions you simply can’t create when interruptions pull you away.

Here’s how it works.


When I was in university, you didn’t wander the fourth floor looking for a professor. Good luck with that.

Instead, you checked their schedule, went during visiting hours, and voila! there they were, ready for you. They had boundaries.

A boundary is a reoccurring slice of time when you are strategically unavailable.

But, more than that, you are only working on one objective.

A boundary is a reoccurring slice of time when you are strategically unavailable.

I write every morning from 5:00-7:00AM (like right now). That’s an easy one to enforce—most mornings everyone in my house is asleep.

My next boundary is from 9:15, when I get to my office, until 10:30. That’s when I aim to complete the hardest 50% of my work. I allow 10-15 minutes to check email and then it’s onto phone calls, completing proposals, following up with clients, and working with colleagues. After that, I meet with Sarah, in my office.

My third boundary, on work days, is from 1:30-3:00. I know that for about 90 minutes shortly after lunch (two to three times a week I’m at yoga and I get back by 1:15), I have an awesome zone for getting the last 50% of my hardest work done.

That’s it: three boundaries that reoccur. Three zones of time that allow me to be uber-focused and super productive.


A time boundary has three characteristics:

1. they happen everyday. Of course there are exceptions, like when I have a webinar scheduled, or I’m on the road speaking, but every other day I stick to my boundaries.

2. they are for project work. No dilly-dallying around checking email—I stay off email and the internet, my goal is to complete tasks and make stuff happen.

3. people respect them. My family knows, staff know, and I know my boundaries need to happen for me to be productive and happy. Success begets success and boundaries have become critical for my success.


Here’s the deal.

You need more time. Right?

You know what you need to do to feel productive. Right again?

In the same breath, you probably would admit you know how good it feels to dedicate time to one task or project and for 30 minutes, or an hour, simply crunch down and get concentrated work down. Capiche?

The way to do this, on a regular basis, is to be strategically unavailable working in a boundary.

Your homework is to do an experiment (yes, kids, I do want you to try this at home). Pick a chunk of time, first thing on waking, later at 10:30 – whatever. Mark it up in your calendar to reoccur everyday, for one week.

Next, treat it like an appointment with an important client (that’s you). Prepare for it, respect it, get focussed (close email, airplane mode your smartphone, close your browser), and watch the work get done.

I know sometimes (scratch that – all the time) I am my own worse enemy. Given my druthers I will fart around and waste time reading an interesting article, or checking out a cool new app. Boundaries give me discipline. I create them, respect them, and allow them to make me so damn productive I should be wearing a cape.

Over to you, crime fighter. Get your calendar out, grab your cape, and become strategically unavailable.