How to be a Productivity Ninja

Although I strive to separate feudal Japan from Tolkien’s middle earth, is “How to be a productivity ninja”, from Graham Alcott the one productivity book to rule them all – and do so from the pointy end of a Katana? Let’s review how it aims to improve your task management and productivity skills.



There are countless productivity tomes out there with easily digestible material on how to go about attaining this ethereal productivity. When I picked up “How to be a productivity ninja”, from Graham Alcott, my first thoughts were, OK colourful language but what can it bring to the table which is new?

First, Productivity Ninja, why Ninja? According to Graham there are certain attributes of ninjas that are well suited to those aspiring to productivity enlightenment. These attributes include,

  • Zen like calm
  • Unorthodox
  • Agility
  • Mindfulness
  • Ruthlessness
  • Weapon savvy
  • Preparedness
  • Stealth and camouflage
  • Not super human

As you read through the elaboration in the book you will understand the usage of these terms and how they can fit the context of information worker productivity. Admittedly though, as I scan through them now, I think “stealth and camouflage”, are combat fatigues a pre-requisite? OK, I digress. Let’s get on with the main thrust of the book and see how one can apply these characteristics in the work place.


Book Contents

Essentially the book covers the following areas,

  • Why we get stressed
  • Attention management
  • The CORD Model for task management
    • Capture and Collect
    • Organise
    • Review
    • Do
  • Project and meeting management
  • Momentum

Going through each of these main points,

Why we get stressed?

Graham succinctly described stress as the propensity of the job to create stress agents and our ability to deal with those. Several causes of these agents were highlighted and cover change, overload panic, conflict, fear of being being foolish


Attention management

I think this is a great point that Graham makes. He states that our attention is finite and should be used as a precious resource, more so than our time. He even goes so far as to say that this is the key to productivity and ultimately the application of this precious resource will determine your success. There is even a mathematical equation governing it!


Since attention is now the key factor in determining actions to do, the tasks that are done at any given time are then aligned with the attention available. So, if you are fresh in the morning you deal with the difficult tasks. Fuzzy minded afternoons can deal with less mentally challenging activities. He categorises attention as follows,

Active: Ticking along but flagging a little

Proactive: Fully focused and alert

Inactive: Lights are on but no one home

Several strategies to maximise periods of pro activity are also proposed. This includes taking yourself away from distraction and improving concentration. I pull a few key points for these,

  • Removing distractions
    • Can be internal(that means yourself!) and external
    • Get a good trusted system to get stuff out of your head (the so called second brain)
    • Minimise meetings, telephone interruptions
    • Close email
    • Minimise review of irrelevant information
  • Creating pockets of attention
    • Walk and talk!
    • Read while waiting, so have a ready stash of material
  • Improve attention
    • Cut out the coffee – I write this while drinking a Nespresso :) – no affiliation with Nespresso, nor George Clooney but it does taste good.
    • Get more sleep – My daughter only woke once last night :)
    • Fitness
    • Meditation
    • Walking


This philosophy is similar to the GTD approach of scheduling tasks based on energy available but I would say with much more emphasis – to the point where Graham states it is the key to productivity. David Allen never went that far.


The CORD Model for task management

The CORD model that Graham proposes is the main mechanism for managing tasks and determining what to do at any given time. CORD stands for Capture, Organise, Review and Do. The former two requires one to operate in “Boss mode”, while the latter two will be “Worker mode”. Going through each activity in a bit more detail…

Capture and Collect:

This covers capturing ideas and new tasks quickly and efficiently. This is to allow you to get distractions out of the way quickly and get back to the task at hand. This may take the form of your ready built In Box or a physical In Tray. Same kind of idea as GTD.


This is where things get a bit more elaborate. The Organise part deals with the appropriate filing of the collected tasks. Three lists are advocated with the idea being that a sense of scale is given to the tasks. Activities spanning months are not mixed in with tasks requiring mere minutes.

Master list: Tasks entered here will have some meta data added during organisation. This could be in terms of work categories and context. The formulation of the task description is such that it commands action.

Daily todo list: Will be a subset of the master list

Projects List: This may be a large set of actions to complete a given objective. The point made is that projects are not done, only actions are. This is where the master list then comes into play.

The stated goal of the Organise activity is to ensure that when operating in execute mode we are clear on what needs to be done and what is committed to.



The review process is split into daily and weekly reviews. Taking each in turn.

Weekly review

The weekly review of the tasks addresses several key big picture items,

  • Get all of your inputs back to zero
  • Get your second brain up to date
  • Think ahead
  • Get ready
  • Questions

Most if these are self explanatory. The second brain refers to the task management system that you now have in place with CORD model. “Questions”, refer to challenging yourself with some fundamental points such as critical review of the importance of what you are doing and are you also addressing other aspects of life such as health and happiness.

Daily review

The daily review sets up the day. Calendars are reviewed, the “big rock”, or important tasks are identified and work is executed.

A major advantage of such review is cited. The review process is a formal and regular look across the tasks to be done taking all things into account – context, priorities, what is needed, waiting for items etc. After the review is complete there is no more thinking about any of this “boss”, stuff. No more questioning of what is important or priority, simply doing. Which brings me to the final aspect of the CORD model.



Graham outlines a nice separation of the worker and boss views when he explains the different dashboards that are available to each. I should mention, worker and boss refer to the same person as information workers are expected to be able to define their work. The dashboard contents for each are,

  • Boss
    • Waiting for list
    • Master actions
    • Calendar
    • Good idea list
  • Worker
    • Master action list
    • Calendar
    • Daily list

Some useful habits in executing tasks are also outlined both in terms of task selection and maintaining that all important attention on the critical items.


Project and management meeting

For project management this book was a little skimpy. Dunne Suppe (thin soup) so to say. However, hard core project management was never intended to be the main thrust of the book so this is understandable. So, for hard core Project Management you will need to refer to other material.

For meetings, a lot of time is devoted so Graham must be an avid meeting attender! The point has already been covered about skipping meetings where possible but where necessary some sound advice is given as to how one can get maximum benefit from them. One key tip is to spend 20% of the effort in the meeting and the remaining time preparing for the meeting and following up actions from the meeting.

Final Words

It is clear from the book that the author is familiar with the standard productivity advice fare. A lot of sound advice comes through in this book, no doubt influenced by his research in this area with several references to this scattered throughout the book. Overall I can say I liked the book. The main task management system is similar to other models from people such as David Allen and Laura Stack. But, I like Graham’s realistic tackling of the subject. The acknowledgement that we are mere mortals and that we should work with that in mind. I like the focus on attention management – again taking a pragmatic approach. So, for normal day to day task management stuff this is a reasonable start.

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