Your NOT-To-Do List

The children have gone back to school, the nights are drawing in, there’s only a month until the clocks go back. Christmas has appeared on the horizon, you’ve spotted a 2020 diary in the shops…

Which means that for many of us thoughts are already turning towards plans for next year. For what you want to achieve in the year – and, by implication, what you need to do in the first quarter and first month of 2020. 

No question about it, you’ll march confidently into your office on Thursday 2nd January, pull that brand new pad towards you and – knowing exactly what you’re going to achieve – confidently write ‘To Do’ at the top.

But there’s another list you need to write. Not just for 2020, but starting now. And in my view, it’s even more important than your ‘to do’ list. 

Your ‘Not To Do’ list. 

I can still remember the shock I got the first few weeks I used Toggl and realised how much of my time wasn’t being used effectively – and how many things I was doing very definitely belonged on a not to do list. 

Despite the technological advances of modern life virtually all of us are leading busier and busier lives: perhaps because of those advances. How many of us check our e-mails just before we fall asleep? 

Add in family commitments – and for many people reading this blog, taking care of ageing parents is now starting to become a major commitment – and all of us have a seemingly endless to-do list. 

At work you need to delegate: at home you need to decide what’s really important. 

Let’s start in the office. Delegation is one of the hardest skills to learn. It is all too easy to sigh and think, ‘It’s quicker to do it myself.’ But you cannot build a business without delegation. Sometimes ‘done’ is more important than ‘perfect.’ 

And as I have written many times, it is not your job to be the best engineer, coder or salesman. It is your job to lead a team of outstanding engineers, coders and salesmen – and to help them go on improving. 

So as you contemplate your plans and targets for 2020 ask yourself – or get someone else to ask – why should YOU be doing that? And delegate what you can delegate, whether it’s to your own team, or to an outsourced specialist. Even starting a ‘not to do’ list will be a valuable exercise: it will unquestionably challenge some of your long-held assumptions about what your job really is. 

Time to come home – where exactly the same principle applies. Let me give you just one example. One of the best decisions Dav and I ever made was to hire a gardener. Andy comes for three hours a week, he cuts the grass and generally keeps the garden under control. We pay him £60 and it is a superb investment. It gives me three hours – longer, really, as I’m not as good a gardener as Andy – which I can spend with my family or simply de-stressing myself. Or yes, as has recently been pointed out to me, hacking out of the rough…

There is one final, and very important, point about your ‘not to do’ list. It doesn’t just apply to you. 

Take a look around you. Is everyone in your team seriously making the very best use of their time? Or are they doing jobs that really could be delegated, allowing them to do much more important work? 

We were guilty of this at TAB head office. Members of the team were doing admin tasks that they really shouldn’t have been doing. That wasn’t a failing: we’d simply reached one of those moments every business reaches from time to time. We’d expanded, there were new challenges, the team needed to focus their attentions elsewhere. 

So Tracey has joined us, she’s immediately picked up a whole range of admin for us and that has helped the existing members of the team to focus on what’s really important. It’s also given them some time to think – to stand back and look at the business. 

I’ve often talked on the blog about working on your business not in your business. A ‘not to do’ list helps you do that. Equally importantly, making sure all the members of your team have a ‘not to do’ list means they can sometimes work on their part of the business not – as Stephen Covey put it – constantly be ‘in the thick of thin things.’ 

And now, with exactly 13 weeks to go until we all abandon the office for Christmas, time for me to make a list…

Darker Thoughts from an Old Friend

I bumped into an old friend in York last week. He was wearing a suit. And a tie. This was the man who became bored with dress-down Friday – and dress-down every other day of the week – when the rest of us were still learning not to wear a striped tie with a check shirt…

There was only one possible explanation.

“Congratulations,” I said. “You’ve finally made an honest woman of Claire. Where is she?”

He didn’t laugh. “Other end of the scale I’m afraid, Ed. Funeral. My second in two weeks. And both of them not much older than us.”

We’ve all been there: mentioned someone in conversation only to hear, ‘Hasn’t anyone told you? Last Thursday. No warning, nothing.” And inevitably the person being discussed was ‘not much older than us.’

That meeting with my friend played on my mind for the next few days. One thing I am sure of is that there is an ever-increasing level of stress in the average entrepreneur’s life. A few years ago people e-mailed or phoned. Now there is myriad of different ways of contacting someone: whatever you turn off, something else will bleep just as you sit down to dinner.

And we all know the dangers of stress.


So that chance meeting with my friend stayed with me – not just because we’d been talking about someone close to our own age, but because the conversation posed a question that’s absolutely central to The Alternative Board.

You’ve started a business. You know what you want to achieve: you know what you’re capable of achieving. And you’re determined to get there.

So what do you do? How do you react when someone says, ‘haven’t you heard?’

Do you take it as a signal to run at 100mph in case the same thing happens to you and you never realise your potential?

Or do you stop and smell the roses? Pay attention to your work/life balance? Remind yourself that no-one’s last words have ever been, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’

The more I thought about it the more I realised I’d seen business owners – perhaps without even recognising it – struggling with the same dilemma. And not just as a one-off.

It’s a problem that raises it head, in different forms, at different stages of your entrepreneur’s journey.

What should I do? Put in the time? Re-invest the cash? And build a company that will really be worth something in 10 or 20 years’ time?

Or realise that I might not get there – and milk the business for all its worth and take my rewards in the here and now.

The answer, of course, is that there is no right answer. The right answer depends on your own individual personality and how you want to live your life. As everyone who knows me will recognise, I’m in the ‘building a business’ camp – and I’m determined to enjoy the journey along the way, sharing that journey with my family and my friends.

Yes, I could be in the office every minute of every day – but I remember waking up one Tuesday morning early in my TAB York days. It was a morning like today: early May and the sun was shining in through the window. I looked at the pile of paperwork on my desk and went off to play 9 holes of golf.

It was a moment when I suddenly appreciated the freedom the decision to start my own business had given me – and when I knew I’d made the right decision in Newport Pagnell service station.

Not every entrepreneur would have taken that decision: some would have ploughed through the paperwork. The important thing, I think, is to recognise what works for you – and what you want from your business.

Whatever choice you make – whether you take your rewards now or later – remember that the business is working for you. It is emphatically not the other way around.

The Monday Morning Quarterback

It’s just about the perfect description. Instantly, we all know what it means…

So the wide receiver’s wide open. 20 yard throw straight into the end zone. Hell, even my six year old can do that. What’s he do? Tries to run it himself. Gets sacked. Turnover. And it’s game over. Season over. See you in September.

There isn’t an equivalent phrase in the UK, but no office is short of an expert round the watercooler on a Monday morning.

Seriously, he thinks X is a centre back? He needs to buy Y. And no wonder Z didn’t try an inch. My mate’s brother says he’s been tapped up by City.

Whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on, no sports fan gets a decision wrong on a Monday morning. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – and it guarantees you a 100% success rate.

Sadly, the entrepreneur doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight: he has to make decisions every day – and he’ll get plenty of them wrong. As a recent article in the Harvard Business Review put it, ‘The problems entrepreneurs confront every day would overwhelm most managers.’


…And – just like the QB on a Sunday night – entrepreneurs get plenty of decisions wrong. Any entrepreneur who gets 50% of his decisions right first time is doing remarkably well. Fortunately, TAB members can improve on those numbers. They can bring their problems to the monthly board meetings – and rely on the collective wisdom, experience and insight of their colleagues: the Tuesday/ Wednesday/ Thursday quarterbacks. Once a problem – or an idea – has been run past seven people instead of one, the chances of a correct decision increase exponentially.

But I’m aware that not everyone who reads this blog is a member of TAB York: plenty of readers are just starting their journey as an entrepreneur. So here are three of the most common problems, proposed solutions and – ultimately – mistakes that I’ve seen in my business life. I hope they help – and don’t worry if you tick all three boxes: every successful entrepreneur has done exactly the same.

  • No-one else cares like I care. The only answer is to do it myself

That’s true. It’s your business: no-one will ever care like you care. But you cannot do everything yourself. That way lies fatigue, burn-out and your wife telling you that she needs to talk… Embrace the division of labour: we live in an age where everything can be outsourced online. Your job is to manage the business: let someone else do the tedious stuff that takes away your creativity and your productivity.

  • There’s no more money in the budget. The only solution is to throw more hours at it

Let me refer you to one of my favourite books, Rework, and page 83: ‘throw less at the problem.’ As the authors say, the solution is not more hours, people or money. The solution is almost always to cut back. You cannot do everything and, as I wrote last week, success comes from a focus on your core business – not on trying to please all the people all the time. Besides, more hours simply means a second, more serious, talk with your wife…

  • Fire people: hire people

When you’re starting out you’ll be a small team: that breeds closeness – and loyalty. But not everyone who starts the journey with you is capable of finishing it. Sadly, at some stage you’ll learn just how lonely it can be as an entrepreneur: one day, you’ll accept that Bill’s just not up to it any more. You have to act: if you don’t, you’ll cause resentment among the rest of Bill’s team – and risk losing people who are up to it. And when you hire Bill’s replacement, don’t be afraid to hire someone smarter than you. See above, your job is to manage and lead the company, not to be the expert on every single aspect of it.


When I write this weekly post I sometimes ‘let it go cold’ for an hour and then give it a final read through. That’s what I did this week and I need to correct myself. The three mistakes above are mistakes we can make at every stage of our business journey – not just when we’re starting out.

It’s all too easy to slip back into bad habits, to think ‘it’s easier to do it myself’ or ‘If I work through the night I’ll have cracked it.’ We’ve all done it. But at least you won’t make the mistakes for long: those quarterbacks round the TAB table will be watching you…

Why You Need a Longer To-Do List

We’re into April – and the Blog is approaching its sixth birthday. That’s something close to 300 posts and nearly 200,000 words.

Which three word combination has appeared most frequently? I’ve no way of telling, but I sincerely hope it’s ‘work/life balance.’ But there are three more little words that won’t be far behind: the ones that haunt all of us. Yep, I’m talking about the ‘to-do list.’

However you keep it – on your phone, in Evernote or on a pleasantly retro piece of paper – the to-do list dominates our lives.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the trap we all occasionally fall into – scoring a few quick wins at the bottom while the most important thing on it remains ominously un-ticked. Let’s also ignore the need to prioritise the damn thing and to make sure that ‘life’ is every bit as well represented as ‘work.’

Let’s just look at one thing: the sheer length of your to-do list. And let me now make the vast majority of you splutter on your cornflakes or hurl your coffee at the screen in annoyance.


Because I’m going to suggest that your to-do list should be longer.

And that if it was, you’d be even more productive…

Let me use a simple example: ‘plan next year.’ Another three little words that will have appeared on all our to-do lists at some point in the not-too-distant past.

But what does ‘plan next year’ really mean…

Once you go to work you realise that ‘plan next year’ contains a series of questions:

  • What do we want to achieve next year?
  • So what are the quarterly targets we need to reach to do this?
  • What does this mean for staffing levels?
  • Do we need to cut costs? Or raise more investment?
  • What advertising and marketing do we need to do?
  • And how are all these plans going to impact on the cash flow?

All these points clearly impact on your to-do list: but suddenly one big task – made even more difficult because it is so vague – can be broken down into a series of small, precise, achievable steps:

  • Decide key targets/goals for next year
  • Determine necessary quarterly targets
  • Review staffing levels in light of targets
  • Plan advertising & marketing strategy for next year
  • Prepare business plan and cash flow forecast
  • Make appointment with bank

There are days when the to-do list fills everyone with dread: but the dread comes not from the length of the list, but from filling it with things we have no chance of achieving. If ‘plan next year’ is on the list with a host of client work and ‘Nativity Play at 2:30’ then you haven’t a hope of doing it. You won’t even start it.

You do have a hope of determining your key goals for next year. Or working backwards to your quarterly targets. What you’ll do by breaking your to-do list down into smaller segments is achieve something – instead of being overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s in front of you.

There are two other reasons for breaking the list down. If you go home at the end of the day and ‘plan next year’ is still on your list it’s going to cause you pain. And it’s going to cause you more pain when you see it again the next morning. But if you go home with your key targets identified and crossed off the list… That’s an entirely different feeling.

Secondly, your to-do list isn’t a wish list: it is – or should be – something that reflects your overall plan for the year or the quarter. And that plan requires specific actions – ‘decide key targets’ – not vague pipedreams like ‘plan next year.’

None of this advice is revolutionary. You’ve almost certainly heard or read it before. After all, it’s only eating the elephant one bite at a time. But we all slip back into bad habits and trust me, this works. It may be counter-intuitive but making your to-do list longer means you’ll ultimately get big things done faster and achieve more. And that’s what we all want…

Tim Ferris and Tony Soprano

Most people reading this blog will have heard of Tim Ferris. Best-selling author of the 4 Hour Work Week, The 4 Hour Chef and The 4 Hour Body. Angel investor in and/or adviser to a host of companies including Facebook, Uber, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Evernote and others…

Ferris has been described by New Yorker Magazine as ‘this generation’s self-help guru’ and as ‘today’s equivalent of Napoleon Hill.’ (Remember him? The author of the first self-help book any of us ever read.)

But Ferris is also accused of manipulating his 5* reviews on Amazon, he’s Wired Magazine’s ‘Greatest Self-Promoter of All Time’ and The 4 Hour Work Week has been described by one reviewer as “A disquieting insight into the world of the 21st Century snake-oil salesman.”

But whatever your view on Tim Ferris, one thing is undeniable. He is hugely quotable. Like anyone who’s quoted extensively, there are plenty of clichés in the collection – but there are also some seriously valid points.

I’ve picked out four (an appropriate number!) which both underline the perennial themes running through this blog, and which are highly relevant as we finally get Christmas out of our systems and focus on our goals for 2016.

Here’s the first one:

For all the most important things, the timing always sucks. The stars will never align and the traffic lights will never all be green at the same time. The universe doesn’t conspire against you, but it doesn’t go out of its way to line up the pins either. ‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.

How many times have I written that – or words to that effect? There’s never a perfect time to get married, have children, quit your job or start your own business. Neither is there a perfect time to expand your business or – ultimately – sell your business. As Ferris says, ‘Just do it and correct course along the way.’


He’s backed up by that other great business guru of our age – Tony Soprano. “A wrong decision is better than indecision.” Spot on, boss. A wrong decision can be acted upon and corrected. But as Ferris says, indecision takes you and your dreams to your grave.

What we fear most is usually what we most need to do.

A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he’s willing to have.

OK, I’ve cheated slightly by treating these two as one quote: I’ve allowed myself some leeway as they’re so similar.

How many times have you come into the office, looked at your to-do list and seen one job screaming at you? One job that’s metaphorically in 72pt font bold? That’s the job you absolutely need to do – and yes, it may very well involve an uncomfortable conversation.

What’s your to-do list look like two hours later? Fantastic. Loads of jobs crossed out. Except for the one in 72pt bold – the one that would really make a difference to your day/week/month/year. And what was Mr Soprano reading last time I re-watched an old episode? Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.

If you are insecure, guess what? The rest of the world is too. Do not overestimate the competition and underestimate yourself. You are better than you think.

I often think back to my ‘first big sale.’ “Yes you can, Ed,” my sales manager said to me. ‘No, I can’t,’ I thought. This was a serious client: I’d only been in the job six months. It would be a two hour grilling. Complex, technical questions that I’d struggle to answer.

You know what happened. My competitors were no better than I was. He asked less difficult questions than almost any other client I’d met. I was in and out in no time. “Will you deliver?” “Yes.” “Will you look after me?” “Yes.” We shook hands.

‘Bigger’ never means more difficult or more complex or ‘you’re not worthy.’ It just means ‘bigger.’

Remember – boredom is the enemy, not some abstract ‘failure.’

Over the years I’ve seen so many people running businesses make mistakes because they were bored. Tim Ferris is absolutely right: boredom is the enemy. Now, more than ever, you can’t stand still in business. As the world swirls around you your business has to change and move forward – and you need to be constantly challenged. Beware the temptation to stand still; to think, ‘we’re in a good place, let’s consolidate.’ Boredom will inevitably follow – as will mistakes, both personal and professional.

Fortunately, there’s an antidote. I refer, of course, to your colleagues round the TAB boardroom table. A group of people that will most certainly challenge you, and who’ll give you courage – to do what you fear most, and to go through a few lights that may not be green.

Taking Control and Staying in Control

I occasionally introduce this weekly post with a reference to Google. This week, I’ve broken all records. ‘Take Control’ were the words I tapped in. Google’s response was instant: take control of your life it said, and offered me 755m hits in 0.54 seconds.

Clearly Thoreau wasn’t wrong when he talked about the ‘mass of men’ leading their ‘lives of quiet desperation…’

Last week I mentioned the three themes that have always run through this blog: work/life balance, going as far as you want to go on your journey, and adapting to change.

In many ways taking control – or being in control – spans all three. It’s easy to come up with a kneejerk response to the idea of control: ‘it’s nonsense. I’m running my own business. Obviously I’m in control of my life.’

But that may not be the case – as much as we’d like it to be. All too often things gradually slide. It’s so gradual that we don’t notice it happening, but suddenly we’re not in control of the meetings: the meetings (or staff problems or customer demands) are controlling us.

If you’re running a business there’s one central point to keep in mind: you’re not there to serve the business, the business is there to serve you – and what you want from life.

So here are five simple strategies that will help you take control and stay in control. They’re based on experience, books I’ve read and yes, my own life: things gradually slide for all of us at some point.

First and foremost, get fit and stay fit. I’ve always played a lot of sport, but like everyone there have been times – having a new baby is a good example – when keeping fit hasn’t been at the top of my priority list. This has almost always coincided with times when I felt I wasn’t in control at work. When I’m feeling at my best I’m more focused, I’ve more energy and I make better decisions – so rule number one for me, if I want to feel in control I make sure that I’m keeping fit and eating healthily.

I’ve written about this on previous occasions, but an essential part of being in control is saying ‘no.’ Two days ago a ‘job’ floated across my timeline on Facebook: a local charity wanted a Chairman. For about ten minutes I was really tempted – it’s an area where I’d love to help. But do I have the time to do it properly and do it without damaging my existing commitments? No. There’ll still be charities needing chairmen when I’m retired. Right now – for me and for everyone round a TAB table – saying ‘no’ is an integral part of staying in control.

Linked to saying ‘no’ is time for yourself. Whether you walk the dog or get out on your bike or simply sit quietly with a coffee, having time to yourself – time to get your thoughts in order – is essential. At least once a month take yourself off, order a flat white, and go through everything: goals, priorities, pipeline, problems, the team… Simply give yourself the chance to reflect and think it all through.

And finally, another nod to Stephen Covey. It’s over three years since he died, but The 7 Habits will still be read – and will still be as relevant – in 50 years. In terms of staying in control, two of the habits are paramount. Begin with the end in mind: if you don’t know where you’re going you haven’t a hope of getting there or feeling in control on the journey.

…And keep the main thing the main thing – which reinforces the point about saying ‘no.’ There are only so many hours in the day and if you spread yourself too thinly you’re back at the beginning – waking up one morning and realising that the meetings and commitments are dictating to you.

With that I have no option other than to climb onto my bike and pedal off into the wilderness with a flask of coffee, a notebook and a pen. Have a great weekend while I’m away…

Why Don’t We Do What We Know We Should Do?

Tick any of the following that apply:

  • I need to exercise more
  • I need to relax – stop getting so stressed
  • I need to eat more healthily
  • I need to spend more time with my spouse/partner/children
  • I need to take more holidays
  • I need to cut down on the beer/gin/red wine…

All of us will have ticked one – or several – of those metaphorical boxes. We all know that there are areas where we could improve our lives and/or our health without too much effort. So why don’t we?

Why do we stand on the bathroom scales and say, ‘Right. That’s it. Definitely this time. Well, as soon as I’ve got that meal and the holiday out of the way…’

I stumbled across an article in the Guardian the other week on behavioural economics, looking at the work of Professor Richard Thaler, President of the American Economic Association and a man who, by his own admission, ‘is a bit lazy, prone to procrastination and likes his booze.’

Thaler’s thesis is simple: people are full of weaknesses and failings – we’re not the cold, logical pragmatists that economic theory and best business practice would expect us to be.

He’s built an academic career not on assuming that we’re all perfect but that – in his own words – ‘everyone is as dumb as I am.’

Along with Cass Sunstein, Thaler published the international bestseller Nudge in 2008. He went on to work with David Cameron’s team after 2010 and Nudge is one of the reasons you might now be auto-enrolling your staff in a pension scheme. We know we should save more for our retirement but we don’t, so we need a nudge.

Thaler’s work shows that people consistently fail to do what’s in their own best interests: the key question for me is, do we do that in our business lives as well as in our personal lives?

Let’s take the simple ‘to-do’ list as an example. Do you:

  1. Make a list of what needs doing and start your day by scoring a few easy wins and crossing six or seven things off the list. Ten o’clock and you’ve knocked off half your list! Awesome…
  2. Or do you prioritise your list, then start with the most important thing – the item that would really make a difference to your business – and work at it until you’ve done it? Then you move on to the second priority…


We all know that the second one is the correct answer. It’s just about the oldest productivity tip in the book and it’s still completely relevant. But then again, all those ticks on your list are so seductive…

And as one of my old managers used to say, “Every big problem starts off as a small problem, Ed.” Absolutely right: so why don’t we nip small problems in the bud? Or chase late-payers more efficiently: or sort out the one member of the team that keeps us awake at night…

We all have things that we know we should do. As I’ve confessed before, I had no idea how much time I used to waste on LinkedIn until I started using Toggl.

But there are plenty of areas where I can still improve – so here’s my challenge and it’s in the best traditions of ‘nudge.’ Take just one area of your life where you’re not doing what you know you should be doing and answer the simple question, ‘Why?’

And then, just one day a week, for the rest of August, do something about it. Go for a walk, drink one less glass of wine, take your wife out on a date.

That’s ridiculously simple: but you’ll find that what was a conscious decision in August becomes an unconscious habit in September. All you need to do is give yourself a little nudge – and you’ll be better for it…

Back to Basics

Sorry about the title – I must have been influenced by the start of the General Election campaign. I didn’t mean to sound like a wannabe Minister of Education…

First of all – even though it’s January 9th – a very happy, peaceful and successful new year to everyone who reads this blog. If you’ve seen any of the papers this week and over Christmas you’ll be in no doubt that the world is going to be a turbulent place in 2015. No-one knows what on earth will happen with May’s General Election: the Greek elections later this month are going to throw the Eurozone into chaos: China’s economy is slowing down: France in social turmoil: the rouble has more or less reached parity with the chocolate coin…

Maybe it’s best to simply go back to bed and not poke your head above the covers until it’s all settled down. Except that we all know it never will settle down and we’ve simply got to roll our sleeves up (metaphorically – it is January) and get on with running our businesses.

And I have to say that I’ve never felt more optimistic. I’m delighted that the members of TAB York are managing to defy the headline writers. It was my privilege in December to look at and discuss a great many plans and targets for 2015. I’ve never seen such a series of positive, ambitious and – just as importantly – realistic documents. It’s going to be a great year for a lot of people.

…And hopefully the information, ideas, suggestions and random thoughts in this blog will help in some small way. But for the first post of the year, let’s go right back to basics. Why do I write this blog?

When the blog started – very nearly five years ago, which I find astonishing – I had four basic aims:

  • The blog was there to keep my name in front of people – after all, TAB York had the grand total of seven clients at the time
  • It was there to prove that I could deliver: that was – and is – why it is always published at the same time every week
  • I wanted to build authority: to show that I knew about business and that if you wanted to take your business to the next level I might be able to help
  • And I wanted to start a conversation. If I got one thing right, it was the realisation that the old ways of marketing had passed their sell-by date. As social media became more and more important, so marketing became more and more about sharing useful information and engaging people

Five years on, nothing has changed. Neither has the answer to another equally important question: who am I writing the blog for?

That answer’s equally simple. It’s for the members and potential members of TAB York. But it goes further than that: I’m writing for anyone who wants to start, or build, a successful business – and also wants to guarantee that they never miss sports day or the nativity play. I’m writing for people who know that the only way to be really successful is to keep your work/life balance truly balanced.

One of the best things about the Christmas break – apart from the obvious – is that it gives you chance to reflect. Every year I flip back through my diary (for ‘flip’ read scroll, obviously) and look at the year’s appointments and notes – and it’s amazing. Every year I see things I stressed over that I’d forgotten about a week later. Appointments that seemed crucial at the time that turned out to be irrelevant. Don’t sweat the small stuff as the cliché goes: it’s all small stuff.

But there are other dates in the diary that really were important. Dates that are never going to come again. Dan’s rugby match. Rory in the school play. Our 16th wedding anniversary.

So to repeat – many of the plans for 2015 that I looked at were breathtaking in their ambition. It will be an absolute pleasure and privilege to work with you this year. But the first question round the TAB table will be simple: have you made sure the really important dates are in your diary?

The Office? The Hotel? Or Iceland…

‘I’ll have the terrine, I think, and then the lamb. And the Cabernet Sauvignon, please.’

An expensive dinner for one. But you’ve earned it. Up at six. Fifty lengths in the pool. Shower. An hour’s work. Breakfast. A serious morning’s planning. An hour’s walk in the hotel gardens – and more planning in the afternoon.

The same again tomorrow and all your plans for 2015 will be done. You’ll know exactly what you want to achieve, what steps you need to take and when you need to take them. Possibly your most profitable two days of the year…


‘That client’s on the phone.’

‘Which client?’

‘ … ’

‘Oh. That client. He might just work out the connection between an invoice and a cheque before he rings. Again.’

‘I’m sorry. He’s really insistent.’

And for the fifth time that day you push your planning for next year to one side and deal with an interruption. Maybe tomorrow will be different. Or next week. Or next year…

As you know, I’m a huge advocate of taking some time out in 2014 to make your plans for 2015: to really think through where your business is going and what you want to achieve. As the old Michael Gerber saying has it, two days when you’re working on your business, not in your business.

When should you do it? November looks like a good time to me. December is simply too full of Christmas and the last minute rush to get things done before your suppliers and/or customers have the now-mandatory three week shutdown.

The big question for me is where? Do you set a couple of days aside and try and do the planning in your office – or do you take yourself away so you’re not disturbed? Make no mistake, this is an important two days’ work – maybe as important as any two days you have in the year.

Hang on, you cry. Two days out of the office? In a hotel? That’s going to cost at least £200. Yes, it is. But I’m not even going to try and present a balanced case – for me, being out of the office wins hands down. The key things are time, space and peace and quiet. And somewhere that takes you out of the normal run of the mill. It’s much easier to think outside the box if you are outside the box.

A quick search on throws up two nights at The Durham Ox in Crayke for £240. My favourite hotel if I want some ‘me’ time is Rudding Park – and it’s absolutely ideal for a couple of days’ serious work. (No, I couldn’t resist going on the website and seeing what’s available for next week…)

I don’t want to turn this into a travel blog and I’m by no means suggesting the Ox and Rudding Park as the only worthwhile destinations in North Yorkshire. But I am making the point that you don’t have to be far away to be far enough away.

Then again, some people do want to be far away: “Yes, I’m working hard,” one of my clients said to me, “But it’s my reward to myself as well.” I can see her point: I’m developing a fascination with Iceland and the Northern Lights…

How to do the planning once you’re in the hotel is a subject for another post, but let me tell you how I start. I ask myself a very simple question: if I were sitting here one year today, what would need to have happened – personally and professionally – for me to be totally happy? And thereafter it’s simple – everything flows backwards. There’s another important point in that question: it’s personally and professionally, not the other way round.

Anyway, I’ll be doing my own planning over the next couple of weeks. 2015 promises to be an exciting – and potentially challenging – year. But whatever politics and the economy throw at you, two days of planning will put you in a far better position to meet those challenges – and will make a difference to your whole year.

Short, Sharp – and Successful?

‘Medical experts’ have just announced that short, sharp bursts are the answer. As you get older it’s not long spells of exercise you need: it’s short bursts of concentrated, maximum effort. That’s the key to staying healthy and getting the most out of life.

…And according to an article I’ve just been reading by American entrepreneur Chris Winfield, the same is true in business. If you want to get more done – or the same amount done in half the time – the answer isn’t to work slowly and methodically down your to-do list. It’s to blitz it with short, concentrated bursts of effort where you’re 100% focused on your work: no internet, no making a coffee, no re-arranging every pencil on your desk.

This was the article I alluded to in last week’s post – and thank you for all the feedback to that one. I’ll be collating all the tips and tricks in a future post (and obviously leaving out a couple of the too-easily-distracted confessions).

To business for this week – and the idea Chris Winfield is using is the Pomodoro Technique, a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late eighties (and as the seasoned travellers among you will know, named after the Italian word for tomato).

It’s an incredibly simple technique and works on the principle that frequent breaks can improve mental agility and make you more – not less – productive.

If you haven’t come across it before you break your work down into intervals known as ‘pomodori.’ Traditionally these intervals are 25 minutes long, and are followed by a five minute break. That said, I know someone who uses 15 minute intervals and someone else (obviously a three Weetabix man) who uses a 45 minute interval. Whatever works for you.

During your 25 minutes the idea is that you work on one task, without distraction, and then – after four pomodori – you take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes.

I like this technique, and in some ways it reminds me of the traditional advice steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was dispensing over a hundred years ago: work on your most important task until it’s done – and then move on to number two…

Where Chris Winfield’s adaptation of the Pomodoro Technique varies is in the way he chooses the tasks for his concentrated bursts:

The reality is that I’m a human being, living in a world full of other humans. I have emotions I don’t control and I often get tired. Some tasks I simply don’t feel like doing, even though I know they’re important and possibly urgent. To make this work long term I had to learn to accept these things, working with rather than against them.

He also moved from a five day working week to a seven day week, accepting that not everything could – or should – be done between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday. The net result? Winfield claimed to have cut his working week to 16.7 hours whilst achieving just as much as he had done previously – and to feeling a lot less stressed.

The Pomodoro Technique might not work for everyone – but it’s worth trying. The two Board members I mentioned above absolutely swear by it. And as the old saying goes, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. That holds good for your to-do list and your personal organisation as much as it does for your sales techniques and your stock control.

Next week is the last week before I go on holiday – when I come back we’ll be more than half way through August and the end of the year will be in sight. So I’ll be looking at what you (and I) still need to do in the remaining four months of the year – and considering what’s the best period of time for business planning. A week? A month? A year? Or do we go really long term and look at three to five years…