10 personal productivity life hacks

Newcastle University appointed me as a Visiting Professor this week. Several people asked me on Facebook and LinkedIn as a result how I balance work and personal life.

There’s no magic.

In the last two-years I’ve watched my partner and my father face serious illness.

As I result I’m almost certain that there is part of me that has become a workaholic to avoid facing the reality around me. Coming to terms with this is a work in progress.

There’s also a truism that if you want to get stuff done you should ask a busy person.

The most driven, high achievers that I know all work incredibly hard. I define a high achiever as someone that is excelling in either their personal or professional life. I’m not sure that I’ve ever met anyone that has truly achieved both.

They’re mothers and fathers that work when they’ve put the kids to bed or before breakfast; scholars that balance teaching, research and non executive roles; and business people that are constantly on the move and are obsessive about making the world a better place or creating value.

In the last 20 years I’ve learnt lots from how people like this manage their life. None of these people are in the gym before 6am or have an army of personal staff as profiles of high achievers in the Sunday papers would suggest. They’re all regular people.

Hard work aside there are two characteristics that high achievers always share – they are optimistic, and they are smart with how they manage their time.

In the spirit of sharing and thanksgiving on the US holiday here are some of the things these people have taught me.

#1 Work travel balance

I travel lots. I’ll clock up around 100,000 miles or more by the end of the year. That’s partly because of my day job (which I love) and partly because I live in a remote corner of England (which I also love). Traveling is often one of my most effective times for working because there are few interruptions. Set yourself up to work on the move with devices, spare batteries and Internet access.

#2 Personal workflow

Related to travel, make gadgets work for you. I’m ruthless in my use of technology: Feed.ly and Paper.li for subscriptions; Kindle for books; messenger services for communication; cloud services for storage; and notes on the iPhone for writing (I’m writing this on a train).

#3 Backup

Have spares of everything that is critical to daily life. Double up on stuff such as data, keys, shirts, toothpaste and underwear. It will save you stress and time. This alone probably saves me at least a couple of hours each week.

#4 Take notes

Digital tools can help streamline so much of our lives but nothing beats old fashioned note taking. It helps me think and process information and my back catalogue of notebooks have got me out of trouble on numerous occasions.

#5 Think out loud

Blogging helps build networks and profile but it’s also a critical part of my learning and development. My blogs posts are rarely fully thought out or finished. Whenever I hit publish people in my network always add value and help develop my thinking. Facebook often works in the same way.

#6 20/20 reading rule

You will not develop your expertise unless you read widely. We read to kids before they go to bed to help them learn and relax yet we neglect ourselves. If you fit in 20 minutes in a day you’ll read around 20 books a year. Then write up and share a review. It’ll help you learn and share your new found knowledge.

#7 Hire a support team

We hire cleaners, taxis and childcare to support out personal lives but rarely seek support in our professional lives. I’ve worked with a researcher and an editor for the last four years, and I wouldn’t be nearly so productive without my assistant at Ketchum. The support of a team is my single biggest hack.

#8 Relationships need work

I reckon most people pay more attention to servicing their car than they do their personal relationships. We’re conditioned in life to follow routine and accept the status quo yet we’re animals that need to be nurtured. Think about it.

#9 Time out

Can I share a secret with you? People are almost always surprised when they learn I’m an introvert. It’s something I’ve challenged throughout my career. I hate large parties, have a very small group of trusted friends and work really hard to put on a show and speak in public. Time out on my own is critical to being able to relax or recharge.

#10 Meeting etiquette

Meetings and conference calls are one of the biggest productivity sinks of modern business life. Never accept a meeting without an agenda, always prepare and insist that the goals and the outcomes are defined. Always avoid post meeting gossip. It’s never helpful.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.


  1. Steve,

    great article, and I’d like to add to it an experience I had. When we started our first business the 3 of us were working to very tight deadlines, but I got the opportunity to become a parent helper at my daughters school. This had to be regular and so I asked my fellow founders if I could go to school every other Monday morning. They agreed, and what followed was liberating. 1. I gained in an invaluable insight into my 4 year olds development, 2. I learned how to play stuck in the mud in the playground, and 3. I undertook a number of very repetitive tasks (check-it books, cutting and mounting, etc), what this did, was allow me time to think. Surprisingly, rather than increasing my work load by having to do more in less time, what happened was when I got to work I had significantly greater clarity about the issues we had to address, I’d been able to think much more clearly during the times that part of my brain was occupied with the repetitive task. My advice, find something you can do that is constructive but repetitive, occupy your brain with this and sink into your subconscious for the hard stuff.

  2. Some great tips, especially about investing in yourself through activities such as reading. I’m interested in your idea of success and successful people, can you define it further?

  3. Thanks for sharing. Really insightful list. Not surprised by nine at all as many of the most successful ‘public’ people I know have to work hard at it as it doesn’t come naturally. One of my best friends is the best public speaker I know, by far, yet he gets incredibly nervous before even the most innocuous little speeches. I know I need to work on seven and figure out a way to get the support team I know I need. Number one is a bit of a conundrum for me. My frequent East Coast journeys are brilliant for getting lots of work done, flying less so as I just can’t work properly on planes.

  4. Totally agree with these points, small changes can have a big impact. And i’m another introvert who fakes it well! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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