The eternal quest for productivity

I’ve been a long time productivity geek, I think it comes from all the programming I’ve done. When you spend a long time programming computers it becomes natural to try and program yourself. I’ve experimented with Trello, Asana, paper, inbox 0, getting things done, spreadsheets, accountability buddies, religious time tracking and am always looking for ways to improve.

Sometimes I would finish my day feeling like I had nailed it. My thinking was clear, I had focused on the most important things and there was a stream of completed tasks floating in my wake. I would exercise, spend time with friends and make smart eating choices.

Other days I would feel like I had achieved nothing. My whole day would feel unfocused, meandering from task to task. Like when you open facebook to look up a message and awaken hours later with a dozen tabs open watching honest trailers.

Most days were somewhere in between, but in the last year I’ve noticed the number of good days increasing. It began in July 2017 when my partner Natalie and I started discussing life goals and decided to create a spreadsheet to track them. We added some colours for different types of goals and started a process of checking in each week to see how we were doing.

We started experimenting with multiple time frames, adding in processes each of us had used in the past and creating new ones as we went. The system is called Life Pilot and it worked so well over the year that we’ve just started sharing it with others.

Here are some of the things that worked for us.


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Just like it’s easier to go to the gym if you have an exercise buddy, I found it tons easier to focus by having a goal setting buddy. Before we started this system we would talk about goals and give each other some encouragement. But it was so much more effective when we started writing them down and having a set time each week to review our progress.

In our spreadsheet we have a column where we mark a goal as green (hit), yellow (progressed), red (missed). It’s very easy to glance and see whether I am on track or not.

So one component of accountability was having a co-pilot, another was writing things down and tracking progress. If you know a colour-coded-spreadsheet-loving goal-setting buddy, great! But everyone can write things down and track their progress.


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One of the best decisions we made was to limit the number of goals we were allowed to set to 3. The original inspiration was from Rowan Simpson’s Top 3 app.

Try this: write down all the things you want to get done tomorrow, circle the 3 most important ones, focus on them and ignore the rest.

The act of deciding on the most important 3 initially felt quite painful, but the biggest surprise was how hard it was to get those 3 things done and not get distracted.

This practice taught me that often what I chose to work on in the short term wasn’t aligned with what I wanted to achieve in the long term. I would also continuously overestimate what was possible in a day and then beat myself up for not meeting my unrealistic expectations.

By doing this over and over again I’ve found my ability to estimate what I can actually achieve has improved. I have also learned how to be more strategic with my time.

While 3 goals doesn’t sound like much they add up quickly. Over 4 weeks I’ll have 3 monthly goals, 12 weekly goals and 60 daily goals to choose from. When considering something I want to achieve this makes me think about whether I make it a daily, monthly or weekly goal.

Limiting myself to only 3 goals in a given time frame has been one of my favourite practices of the Life Pilot system.


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One of the first things we did was to start categorising our goals – is this for business, health, lifestyle, personal growth etc. We gave each category a colour and this made it obvious what we were choosing to prioritise.

Like many people I had a goal to get fitter (too much programming and pizza). Early on I saw a week full of the colours for business, impact and wealth with nothing focusing on health. It was obvious that my short term choices weren’t lining up with my long term aspirations, and this made it a lot easier for me to sustainably prioritise exercise and nutrition.

I’ve also gained insight into the rhythms of my productivity. I think the computers have given me a mental model of myself which is more mechanical than biological. My energy, attention and motivation can vary dramatically and they often follow patterns. I’ve had a bad habit for some time of working until I have nothing left, crashing for a few days and then slowly ramping back to a decent level of energy.

Earlier this month Natalie and I had both put in a big week but were just short of our weekly goals. We loaded up our Saturday with some more work goals and promptly wasted the morning not achieving very much before binge watching away the afternoon. Upon reflection it was obvious we should have prioritised recharging instead of working.


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Last month we shared our system with 35 people in our first cohort and it was a fantastic experience. One of my biggest learnings was that it doesn’t matter how many goals a person hits. What matters is what they learn about themselves.

Every week Natalie and I sit down and review our progress. We look for patterns, we dig into underlying causes. Why is it that the same daily goal lingered over four days like a bad smell? Why did I commit to more than I could do and so on.

One fascinating thing I learned about myself was how childish I can be. If I feel forced to do something due to external factors rather than choosing to do it myself I often feel resentful and procrastinate horribly before starting. This even extended to things I committed to a long time ago and feeling resentful to my past self. Learning how to hack my brain and give myself choice in constrained environments was a pretty effective strategy to overcoming some quite bad habits.

Another pattern I’ve seen is to set the same amount of goals in a week when I have less capacity. When I was sick or taking time off for a conference I still tried to do the same amount of work that I would do in a full week.

I’ve found that frequent reflection gives rise to continuous improvement and it is wonderful to see people new to the system harvesting powerful insights about themselves.

Common Patterns

When we first started our goal tracking spreadsheet it felt a bit geeky. Like something not many people would want to do and we were a bit weird for loving it so much. We spoke to our friends and family about what we were doing and surprisingly a lot of people were keen to learn more.

This prompted us to send out a survey to learn more about people’s interest in life planning and goal setting. We were thrilled to receive over 200 responses (which you can add to here) and it was fascinating to spot some common patterns.

A lot of people found that lining up their short term goals with their long term aspirations was a challenge. Feeling distracted by unimportant tasks was common.

Over 80% of people felt overwhelmed by their todos at least once per week. The most common way people kept tabs on their daily goals was using a paper todo list the second most common was memory followed by software.

Lots of people have tried various systems, the hardest thing is sticking with something. Many people want a system that holds them accountable, is easy to get started with and most importantly, easy to stick with.

Life Pilot

So we’ve taking our somewhat geeky colour coded spreadsheet and turned it into an accessible system to help people set and achieve goals.

It works best when two people pair up and tackle it together but we’ve had plenty of people get value from the system flying solo.

It’s early days still, we ran one cohort of 35 people through the system in July and are running a second one in August. Come and explore the system with us!

The eternal quest for productivity



Having a culture of individual feedback is an important part of growing awesome teams, yet for many teams I work with giving feedback is in the category of “something we want to get better at”. Speedbacking is a simple process to help people practice and nurture a culture of honest feedback.

I designed this process to help students at Dev Academy and have found it crucial to creating a high performance learning environment. I’ve run it with dozens of groups of 8 – 20 people and find it a crucial culture building tool, as well as good skills development in its own right.

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Here’s how I host a Speedbacking session:

Setup (people) :

  • A group of 8 – 20 people
  • Usually the session is just promoted as ‘Feedback’ or sometimes ‘Speedbacking, getting better at feedback together’
  • The more the people have worked together the better but limited team experience works too. This could be long time team mates, students who have been studying together for a few weeks, or retreat participants who have gotten to know each other over a few days.
  • Each person will need some paper and something to write with
  • You will need a time keeping device

Setup (space):

  • Ideally I would start the group in a circle but it’s fine to start with a presentation layout and have everyone facing you
  • You want to have chairs that are easy to rearrange in to two rows with no tables or desks in the way


The main points that I hit to set the tone

* Feedback is a skill. The more you do it, the better you get. Today is a practice session to help us explore that skill while hopefully giving and receiving some useful feedback on the way

* In a few minutes you are going to give and receive feedback to everyone else in this room. You may be wishing you were somewhere else right now, and I can assure you that is a very common reaction. That’s one reason why we often don’t give or receive enough feedback, we have barriers where it seems easier to avoid it. I can also assure you that by the end of the session you will very likely feel differently than you do now. I find participates reactions vary from “that was much better than I expected” to “that was really awesome”.

* Before we jump in to the practice session, let’s go through some key ideas

Key Ideas

If we are short on time then I run through these pretty quickly, otherwise I like to leave space for questions and discussions as we go through the ideas.

Feedback is a skill, it takes practice

If I were to ask you to list your top 20 skills right now, do you think giving feedback would be on the list? What about receiving feedback? While it isn’t common for us to perceive them as skills they absolutely are. Especially receiving feedback, it takes skill to filter out your feedbackers biases, it takes skill to distract your ego to hear challenging feedback, it takes skill to ignore feedback that may be true but isn’t useful right now. The more you practice them and the more consciously you practice them, the better you will get.

[example of the worst feedback you ever gave / received] I often tell a story about one of my business partners who asked me for some feedback on working with him. I thought really hard about it and then mentioned that I hadn’t seen him actively keeping Xero (our accounting software) up to date or using it to generate many reports and he might want to upskill on financial management and using numbers to drive the business. He gently reminded me that he had an economics degree, was very comfortable with financial management and the only reason he hadn’t been updating Xero was because the business was so small he could keep it all in his head. I’d completely forgotten about his financial background! The worst feedback I’ve given, ever.

It’s ok to give feedback that’s off the mark, it’s ok to receive feedback that doesn’t feel right. Giving good feedback is a skill and we’re just practicing here.

Actionable, Specific, Kind

The best way to give good feedback is to make it Actionable, Specific and Kind. (I will often write these words up on a board).

Actionable : Feedback that you can do something about. You’re too short for the basketball team isn’t good feedback.

[Optional question to group: “what are some examples of feedback that is or isn’t actionable?”]

Specific : “The game you played was great” isn’t good feedback, it might make the feedbackee feel better but it won’t help them get better.

[Optional question to group: “what are some examples of feedback that is or isn’t specific?”]

Kind: The purpose of giving feedback is to help the feedbackee, it is an act of generosity. “Here is a list of 10 actionable and specific ways that you suck” isn’t a good approach to feedback.

[Optional question to group: “what are some examples of feedback that is or isn’t kind?”]

[Optional question 2: “what is the difference between kind and nice?”]

Here is where I would give some examples of different feedback and ask the group what they think about them.

Another good thing about ASK is that it is a reminder to checkin with someone before giving them feedback. “I have some feedback about the session you just ran, would you like to hear it”, and being completely ok if the answer is “not right now”. Remember that it takes energy to process feedback well and sometimes “surprise feedback” it isn’t setting your feedbackee for success. Ask first.

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Feedback difficulty levels

I find it useful to think of giving and receiving feedback as a game that you can play on multiple difficulty levels. When giving someone feedback in the category “here is something you are great at that you may not be aware of” you are playing at an easier skill level than “here is something I think you can get better at” which is easier than “here is something you did that hurt or disappointed me”.

When playing on harder difficulty levels realise you are getting in to it is a good idea to think carefully about the feedback before hand and realise you are getting in to difficult conversation territory which is another skill entirely.

Continuous Improvement

The reason we give feedback is to help people around us get better every day. It is an act of generosity and service that takes practice and skill. We don’t give feedback to make ourselves feel better, to demonstrate our ability or to make someone else do what we want. Sometimes giving public feedback in a group setting can be a good way to help lots of people learn faster, sometimes it is easier to give or receive feedback in private.


Step 1: prep

  1. Write up everyone’s name on a white board.
  2. Give the group 1 minute per person to come up with a piece of feedback for everybody on the list. So if there are 15 people give the group 15 minutes of prep.
    1. Mention that it can be hard to think of good feedback for people and that’s why we are practicing
    2. If you can’t think of any feedback you can share something you appreciate about that person
    3. Or you can share your experience of an interaction you recently had. “I don’t know if I have any feedback for you but my experience of the session you ran was…”
  3. Give them a few minutes notice before the time is up

Step 2: speedback

  1. Arrange all the chairs into two lines facing each other. I usually have to encourage people to move the chairs closer to the person opposite them.
    1. You will have 1 minute to give feedback to the person opposite you and then 1 minute for them give you feedback.
    2. When you’re time is up I’ll raise my hand, if you ever see anyone’s hand in the air, raise your hand and stop talking (my favourite social process for bringing a group to silence
    3. Everyone on this side (gesture to one row of chairs) go first.
    4. Time for 60 seconds and then switch pairs
    5. Time for 60 seconds and then first rotation
  2. First Rotation
    1. Get everyone to stand up
    2. If you have odd numbers then ask everyone to move to the chair to their left
    3. If there are even numbers ask one person to stay seated (they will stay in that chair for the whole process) and then ask everyone to move into the unoccupied chair to their left
  3. Repeat
    1. The rest of the session turns into a timekeeping game of ‘Everyone on the left feedback’, 60 seconds, hand up, ‘Switching’, 60 seconds, hand up, ‘Rotate’
    2. After 4 or 5 sessions I find it is good to give people a minute or two to digest and take any notes they wish to
    3. Keep going until everyone has speed backed with everyone else, or your time is up

Step 3: reflection

People are usually buzzing after the speedbacking round and I like to finish off with a circle. Give everyone 2-3 minutes to reflect on the session, make any notes they wish to and then rearrange the group into a circle.

There are two questions I finish with depending on the time remaining a) a tweet of advice to yourself (short version) b) any reflections on the process and a short summary of the feedback you want to action (long version)

I would love to hear your stories

This process is published as part of The Peer Garden learning community, feel free to take the ideas and do what you like with them.