Food for thoughts

I’ve been really interested in nutrition for a few years now. Anyone who knows me will know I’m not a massive ‘foodie’ and fine dining is largely wasted on me, but there’s something obvious yet profound about the fact that our brains perform better when they’re well-fuelled.

I guess it hit home for me around three years ago, when I suffered a really nasty bout of depression. I have terrible genes when it comes to mental health, but this was my first time being medicated for it. Save for a few afternoons in bed that no one really knew about, I carried on running the business and nobody really knew what was going on in my brain (I was CEO at the time, and although I wasn’t doing a great job, I managed to just about keep the show on the road). Once the fog cleared and I decided to come off the happy pills, I wanted to give my brain the best chance of being clear, sane and energised.

I set to work on controlling what was controllable: starting thinking about food intake, developed an exercise regime, hired a yoga teacher… Y’know, the stuff that privileged white people get to think about.

I hired an incredible nutrition coach, Colette Heneghan, who I’d known for a while. At her suggestion, I sent her photos of everything I was eating and drinking via whatsapp (she had me on mute, don’t worry). She held me accountable, cheered from the sidelines and offered gentle suggestions when I was eating bad stuff. We added more protein to my lazy, cooking-for-one veggie diet. We worked out that if I took a daily magnesium supplement, I felt stronger and that when I paid attention to vitamin-D and tryptophan in my diet, I slept better and had more energy. I could even concentrate properly on work again.

I also learned a hell of a lot. Like the fact that if you want to eat well from a supermarket, you just shop around the outside isles and avoid what’s in the middle. Like the fact that you’re more likely to put good food in your stomach for a whole week if you put good stuff in your fridge once a week. And more subtle changes in mindset, too – like the feeling of being ‘full-up’ doesn’t really have much to do with the brain being well-fed, and throwing a few random bits from the fridge together can actually be more nutritious than following a long Nigel Slater recipe. It’s about ‘nutriful, not beautiful’, as Colette puts it.

And after a few months, I realised I no longer needed to whatsapp my food: I’d changed my habits and there was no need for the day-to-day accountability.

Since then, the part that comes up with productivity ideas (which are all, in essence, how to do something in the laziest or simplest way) has been working out how to make all this nutrition stuff as uncomplicated and as accessible as possible.

So here we are. Colette and I had a fantastic kick-off meeting with my publisher, Icon Books, yesterday. We’re working on a book to bring accessible, practical, fuel-your-brain advice to everybody, for less than the cost of a service-station fried breakfast. It’s an exciting project. We hand in the first draft somewhere around May/June and the book will be out in early 2019. It won’t be a coffee table book with beautiful photographs of women and spinach, it’ll be the practical stuff like how to read food labels, how to lessen the effects of jetlag with avacados and how to eat well when you’re busy or tired. In short, it’s gonna be “nutrition for when you can’t be arsed”.

And we’re at that beautiful stage in the process – the bit I love the most – where anything is possible and structure isn’t final. Which means if you have ideas, questions or feedback, it could end up shaping how the book turns out. So I’d love to hear your thoughts.



Adventures in Productivity Scheduling – Part Two


In Part One, I explained my reasons for designing my current work schedule, based around the concept of 3 C’s: Create, Collaborate and Chill. I’ve been keeping this schedule pretty constantly for a couple of months now, so in this post I’m going to go into each phase in more detail and give some reflections on how productive it’s been so far. First, here’s a visual reminder of how it works for me:

5-9am 9-10am 10am-1pm                    2-5pm After 5pm
Monday Create Fitness


Fix-up, look sharp

Create Collaborate Chill
Tuesday Create Create Collaborate Chill
Wednesday Create Create Collaborate Roscoe/Chill
Thursday Sleep/Roscoe Review & Wrap Up Chill/flex Roscoe/Chill
Friday Sleep/Roscoe Yoga (9.30 – 10.30) / Chill Chill Roscoe/Chill
Saturday Sleep/Roscoe Unplugged Chill Open Open

Create: Eliminating the temptation to mentally ‘look busy’.

I noticed on my sabbatical just how many of the gaps in my attention I was filling with twitter, news and mindless information scrolling. These days this is mainly on my phone. I found myself pining for the days when I used to put my internet router on a time-switch, to basically kill the internet during the mornings. I’ve found these days with a kid, I feel the need to be ‘on call’ a little bit, and also my music (which is one of the most important things in my life!) is all through Sonos these days, which requires a router.

The solution for me has been an app called Quality Time. What this allows me to do is dictate, in advance, periods of time where my phone will only allow me to perform certain functions, or only have access to certain things. Everything else is blocked (unless I turn off Quality Time, which takes a deliciously long five minutes to do!):

Create time: What’s blocked, what’s not

Blocked Access to
All incoming calls, with exceptions set for my family, Roscoe’s nursery, my assistant. Incoming calls also receive an automated text reply saying I’ll call them back in the afternoon. Outgoing calls
Twitter, YouTube, Instagram (this alone reclaims so much time!)
Google Chrome
Outlook (emails) Calendar app (So I can still see and edit my schedule)
Podcasts app Sonos controller app, so I can access music while I work.
All Whatsapp notifications Whatsapp for outgoing chat or proactively looking at it.
All other phone notifications

The app has its own ‘home screen’, to which I’ve added the motto “The Work Can’t Done”. It comes from one of my favourite songs of 2017, Speech Debelle’s The Work. It’s a tune that inspires me to be the best version of myself, but also to acknowledge my own imperfections, and be kind to myself on that journey. It’s been a near-constant soundtrack to my last few months, and every time I see that phrase on my phone’s home screen, it gives me a better reason to ignore the phone than to pick it up in the futile search for instant gratification or distraction.

The ‘Create’ phase has meant 5am alarms. I roll out of bed (more easily most days than I expected, actually), and by about 5.10am I’m stood at my desk with a cup of tea, putting my full focus into something. I’ve been winding down much earlier and I’m generally in bed by about 9-9.30pm. The only issue is that because my week is very much a game of two halves, I’ve had a few occasions where my brain is wide awake, jet-lag style, at 5.30am on a day when I have no reason to be up ‘til about 8am. That’s annoying and has been a little tiring, but that’s only happened two or three times.

There’s something beautiful about the silence of the early morning, and the knowledge that no one else is even thinking about interrupting me. There’s less anxiety, somehow, than when I know I’m  almost certainly ignoring an email or a whatsapp chat (which happens in the 10am-1pm bit).

I do a full Weekly Checklist review on a Thursday, and at that point I tend to set out what I want to achieve during my ‘create’ periods. I write these on post-it notes and try and stick to one thing per period, so a perfect Monday to Wednesday means making significant progress on six things. I keep it agile enough and move the post-its around to follow my attention and motivation through those days.

Mondays to Wednesdays have two break periods of an hour. 9-10am is for the 3 F’s (because without alliteration, how can this be useful productivity advice?): Food, Fitness and ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’. The latter is a Dizzee Rascal reference, and just means showering and getting dressed. Fitness tends to be either a short meditation or a brisk 15 minute run. The second break, 1-2pm, is much more relaxed. I tend to just eat and maybe watch a documentary on Netflix, read, dick around on Twitter, and generally have a nice hour of sofa time. It sometimes gets delayed so I don’t start it until more like 2.30pm if I don’t have scheduled meetings, but I still try and keep to it being an hour’s break.

Perhaps you’re thinking at this point, “but this doesn’t apply to me, I’m not creative”. I disagree. My own definition is that I’m creating ‘words’, ‘change’ or ‘good in the world’. Those last two are broad enough to include signing off my company’s annual accounts, writing new powerpoint slides for one of our workshops, sketching out new book ideas, rehearsing for a keynote, managing my podcast and lots of other stuff. Whether you’re creating Word documents to move a project forward or a masterpiece for sale, your job involves the need to create.

Collaborate and Constraint

Meetings and email can be a huge time-suck, and we all know that it’s not where the real work happens. I tend to think about a good open door policy as being a good closed door policy too. If it’s communicated clearly, then everyone knows when they can schedule things in with you. You make yourself available, and by default, create the times when you’re unavailable (or much less available). My own version of this – limiting all email and all types of meetings, conversations or collaboration to no more than 9 hours a week – is pretty extreme, and I’m not suggesting you need to adopt exactly the same timings or structure, but I think there’s definite value in delineating between ‘create’ and ‘collaborate’ time, otherwise the default (particularly in open plan offices) becomes spending the whole week in ‘collaborate’, pining for two hours of ‘create’ time. I mention this stuff when I’m running what’s been described as time management training on speed. It’s of course the principles that matter, not the exact practicalities.

Collaborate is, by definition, much more open and my access to technology is less regulated:

Still blocked But access to…
Instagram, Twitter, YouTube Google Chrome
Whatsapp group notifications Whatsapp, including receiving notifications on most chats
Email notifications Outlook, emails
Phone calls (incoming and outgoing)
Podcasts app

My only worry so far is for the quality of my collaboration (as opposed to the quantity!). I feel like it’s suffered just because by the time I get into a ‘collaborate’ period, my brain feels pretty tired and beaten up. That, of course, was completely by design, the thinking being that the obligations to collaborate would force me to push myself harder for those last two or three hours of the day, but there have been a few instances of me feeling a little grouchy, or not quite thinking as clearly as I might. Has it been noticed, and has it affected anything? I’ll leave the team to comment on that below (!), because that’s simply not for me to say. Perhaps it has.

Chill… and working on it

Working on my ability to chill has been a vital aspect of the last few months for me. The ability to fully switch off and be present, rather than a half-hearted, edge-state of light distraction has been some profound learning. It’s hard. And hence, even in Chill mode (which kicks off at 5pm Monday to Wednesdays, from lunchtime on Thursday and from waking on Friday to Sundays), I still use the Quality Time app. I have a period akin to a halfway house between ‘create’ and ‘collaborate’ for my evening mealtime routine with Roscoe, so that I’m focussed on him instead of getting angry with politicians on Twitter. And I have a lighter, ‘keep away from the internet’ routine on a Saturday and Sunday mornings, just to help me focus on more quality activities. But there’s still plenty of time in my waking week to explore the online world, and I genuinely haven’t really missed being there more regularly.

The Balance

Ultimately, whilst of some of the scheduling here may seem extreme or confining (again, this post isn’t to suggest you should copy me), I feel like I’m succeeding so far in creating the balance and the quality of lifestyle that I promised myself during my sabbatical. So far (and it’s still early-ish days, being 7 or 8 weeks in), I feel productive, motivated and generally well rested. There’s definitely a crunch point on Wednesday afternoons and Thursday mornings, but I’ve noticed myself feeling saner and happier during those points in the last couple of weeks, as my body and brain adjusts to the schedule. Travel and evening events have conspired a couple of times to jolt me off-rhythm, but so far I’m being kind to myself – if I have a late journey back from London, I’ll start at 7 or 8 instead of 5 the next day, or on the rare occasions that I have a heavy social weekend or am traveling (only once so far), I’ll just cancel the Monday’s first ‘create’ period.

I had one really gloomy day, where I felt tired and my mental health fragile, which coincided with my birthday and the changing seasons (I always hate both!) and was also off the back of a couple of stressful days running around London. That may sound alarming to you, but it’s pretty par for the course with my weird brain, and perhaps the extended periods of chill not only helped spot it quickly, but allowed me to deal with it faster than I might have done previously. One slightly longer sleep and I felt completely reset. I’m also much more open about sharing it with friends these days, which is a massive help.

Whilst I’m still doing my Weekly Checklist review process on a Thursday morning, the idea is that I’m doing the ‘delivery’ part of my work in 3 days of 10 hours’ work a day, leaving me with roughly a 3.5 day weekend.

So far, I feel that the early mornings and attention-discipline are worth it to create enough space for the other parts of my life, and most importantly to ensure that Roscoe has all the time and attention from me that he – and his pile of admin – needs.

So after all that, the questions for you are…

  • What are the points in your week where you need to carve out and protect the space and attention for ‘create’ time?
  • How can you be more mindful with what you let grab your attention?
  • And if you could start from scratch and redesign your working day or working week, what would it look like?

And if you have questions for me, I’d love to answer them – but only after 2pm.

My 3 Modes: Adventures in Productivity Scheduling

Returning to work after a long absence is an interesting experience. Returning to work with almost 100% autonomy and the freedom to choose both your work and hours is a hard-fought but deep luxury. It’s given me the ability to reset, start from scratch and work out what ‘productivity’ best resembles in my life. Here’s the story so far.

What I’m going to share with you is a mix of old and new. I’m returning to a few concepts that have been good to me over the years, but accentuating them and going ‘all in’ on what I know works (for me). It’s also taking into account two really important ‘problems’ I needed to solve, that are certainly newer and nuanced:

  1. The smartphone problem. I noticed in my sabbatical time that I’d become morbidly fascinated with Trump and Brexit, leaving me regularly sat at home with a vague sense of doom. It’s just not healthy for me (read: anyone?). Twitter has become a cess pit and gets me down. Yet phones offer the easiest route to ‘looking busy’ when your brain feels idle and most people fill in pretty much every gap in their attention these days with a bit of shiny scrolling. But I know I need to occasionally dream, think or just be silent and bored to be creative and useful in my work. I had to solve this mild phone addiction to give me my focus back.
  1. The child problem. Well, it’s not a problem as such, but I realised on my sabbatical that, for various reasons, I needed to put Roscoe first. Like, actually first. Before anything. I’ve always found parents who say “my kids come first” vaguely annoying. I think it’s a bit pious but also that it lacks a bit of imagination (like “I used to dream of professional successes or visiting all the football league stadiums, but now my biggest priority is buying Lego for a child’s birthday party”). Can I plead special circumstances? I’m a 50-50 single dad, with a special needs kid who requires A LOT of admin and is at a critical stage of his learning and development. I know, its still pious and annoying. He comes to me on Wednesday evenings and he’s either here until Saturday lunchtime or Sunday evening, depending on whether it’s mum or dad on the weekend shift. So being useful at work and showing up for him means maximising the first half of my week.

Luckily in solving these problems, I remembered I teach this stuff. I’m aware of the law of diminishing returns of attention. Most studies point to something like a 40 hour threshold as being the sustainability point for peak performance in more manual roles, hence Henry Ford’s designing of what we now refer to as the ‘typical 9-5’. Yet studies of knowledge work jobs tend to point to diminishing returns after around 30 hours a week.

I also work with an awareness what psychologist Roy Baumeister called ‘ego depletion’ – the idea that every act, every decision, every little effort to focus your attention or emotion onto something useful helps chip away at your ‘ego’ or self, until the well runs dry and you need refilling. It’s why you can sit at your desk at 4pm and just stare blankly at a screen when you’ve a list of useful stuff you should be doing. This operates for me on a daily and a weekly level, so broadly speaking I need to be doing the hardest or most skilled work earlier in the day and preferably earlier in the week, too.  This is basically the ‘proactive to inactive attention’ concept from ‘Productivity Ninja’.

So you can probably see where this is going. Here’s my new ‘business as usual’ week:

  5-9am 9-10am 10am-1pm                    2-5pm After 5pm
Monday Create Fitness


Fix-up, look sharp

Create Collaborate Chill
Tuesday Create Create Collaborate Chill
Wednesday Create Create Collaborate Roscoe/Chill
Thursday Sleep/Roscoe Review & Wrap Up Chill/flex Roscoe/Chill
Friday Sleep/Roscoe Yoga (9.30 – 10.30) / Chill Chill Roscoe/Chill
Saturday Sleep/Roscoe Unplugged Chill Open Open

The timings here are largely irrelevant, but the 3 distinct ‘modes’ are useful:


This for me is my ‘big rock’ time. My time to get down and work solidly on something where I can really add value. I tend to focus on one thing for each ‘period’. Think of it like school! It’s total focus, total solitude (I’m a natural introvert so luckily this doesn’t bother me or scare me, as it seems to other people – it feeds me). The key to making this work is to massively limit the capability of my smartphone during these periods, via an app called Quality Time.


This is where I open the doors, (metaphorically speaking, as I’m usually still in my shed). This is where my job switches to being about supporting other people in the work they do. It could be via emails, skype calls, meetings, coffees, or something else.


Chill is the one I find the hardest. I noticed during my sabbatical how guilty I would feel just curling up on the sofa to read a book and enjoy a moment. It’s something I struggle to do when all the temptations are nearby. Baumeister’s work makes clear not only how important it is to recharge, but also that self-control is a muscle, so developing my ability to chill, actually builds increased self-control in my brain, so that ‘ego depletion’ happens at a slower pace in future. The mindset that ‘chill’ is as important a priority as ‘work’ might seem strange – since it’s usually the thing we promise ourselves in that mystical never-land of ‘when the work calms down’ – but it was one of the hardest and most profound lessons the sabbatical time taught me. Seeing the energy of ‘chill’ as something that adds fuel to the fire rather than ignores or wastes the flames has been a mindset shift, and has helped me get a better balance.

In part two of this post, I’ll look at the 3 C’s and their practicalities in more detail, offer some reflections on the first few weeks of implementation, and answer that “fuck, but 5am, seriously?!” question. Stay tuned.