A friend joked that every week I seem to be launching a new project, or about to launch a new project.
That’s not entirely true but when it happens, the feeling of being productive and benefitting others with your work is a major blessing. In this post I’m going to share some of the habits, tools and systems that I’ve developed over the past ten years.
1. Being busy means nothing.
We are all busy! Everyone around us seems so busy with life, work, study & family. The days go fast and they all fill up somehow. But are we really getting closer to our goals? Don’t confuse being busy with meaningful action that will benefit your life. And when you are busy, make it count.
2. Start with BHAGs.
What are your Big Hairy Audacious Goals? These are the major things you want to achieve in life. It’s surprising to me how many people haven’t thought deeply about theirs, or can’t articulate them well. What do you want to be doing in 2, 5, 10, 50 years from now? Your BHAGs are a distant mountain that should influence the paths you take and decisions along the way. I’ve written mine down in detail and refer to them often to keep me on track. I have a detailed description of what I’d like to be doing in 2025, inshaAllah. It was guided by big questions: What would you do if you only had a year to live? What would you do with a billion dollars? What are the guiding principles in your life? Writing detailed answers to these forced me to think. So when opportunities do come up, having this long term vision and purpose can give you focus and clarity – does this guide you closer to the distant mountain (your goals), or further away?
3. Set S.M.A.R.T goals.
“If I had 8 hours to chop a tree, I’d spend the first 6 sharpening my axe” – A. Lincoln. Translate your BHAGS into the stepping stones that will help you get you there. Setting goals & planning are the keys to productivity. We all know this. But make sure your goals are S.M.A.R.T: ‘Specific – Measurable – Attainable – Relevant – Time Bound’. If your BHAG is “be a world renowned author who gives free writing workshops around the planet” one of your early goals would be “Write a book this year”, and the first SMART goal would be, “Write 2000 words by Tuesday.”
4. Build strong systems.
There are many awesome tools & apps out there for helping to get organised. Find one that works for you and make sure you actually use it daily. I’m a huge fan of Trello and have converted many people to using it in the last few years. My personal Trello boards define goals into categories: Mind, Health, Spiritual, Family & Business, each with a series of simple goals underneath. For example, ‘Mind’ has ‘Read 30 books this year’ and when clicked I can see my specific progress with each book title checked off and next on the list. I use a large 40” 4k monitor at my office and have Trello permanently open to see my goals at all times. It helps me see a snapshot of the big picture and the little details in one place. I also use Evernote extensively with thousands of notes tagged into a giant library of my thoughts, ideas, research, inspiration and many other random cool things.
5. Develop solid routines.
Creative types & startup founders are notorious for working crazy hours and trying to outdo each other with all-nighters and marathon work sessions. They love to boast about how little they’ve slept. I did that for a few years when starting out, but am far more efficient and productive these days with my daily routine. My ideal weekday starts with prayer just before sunrise, dhikr, some stretches, then opening up Evernote on my Macbook with a daily gratitude journal (I use an IFTTT recipe to automatically create a daily template). I write 3 things I’m grateful for, 3 things that would make the day better, and read 3 short affirmations linked to my BHAGs. Then I check my the schedule for the day, set most-important-tasks (MITs), and reply to any key emails usually by the time my kids are up and ready for breakfast. During the day I try to take at least a 20 minute walk (fresh air & inspiration from nature) or a long break away from my desk with some reading or a video lesson from an online courses. I avoid working weekends, and am home by 7pm most nights.
6. People & Places: Create the right environment
I’m comfortable working at home on my couch, but am most efficient at the office which is specifically designed as a creative space with natural light, bright colours, books, beanbags and a giant whiteboard wall. Being close the beach & halal cafes is a bonus but I didn’t have that for the first ten years, so don’t make it an excuse or barrier to productivity. I’ve been very fortunate to grow a wonderful team of creative people around me who are much better designers than me, and are the backbone of my success. Empowering my staff with responsibility enables me to manage many projects at once, especially paired with a strong studio workflow and design process. I have an awesome virtual personal assistant on the opposite side of the globe who is awake when I’m asleep and helps me with research, administration, scheduling and social media planning. Throughout the day I send her tasks and when I wake up they are ready. In life & work, find the areas where you add the most value (or enjoy the most), and try to delegate or outsource the rest.
7. Stay motivated & focussed.
“Let’s go invent the future” – Steve Jobs. To be sustainably productive you need a system that works for you – and everyone is different. My system has evolved over time and I’m certain it will keep doing so, along with my goals themselves. I regularly listen to a range of podcasts and audio clips while driving, walking or cycling, I read & share articles (try Flipboard) and stay hungry for inspiration and excitement wherever it can be found. I actively look for mentors and interesting people from a variety of backgrounds who are much smarter than I for guidance (even if they are younger than me). I’ve been able to develop friendships with a few incredibly talented, uplifting successful people who I can turn to for help. I found them over the years by actively looking – at events, networking online, community circles – but always trying to be useful and be at their service first before asking for their help. If you have good intentions, and find a unique way to bring value to other people’s lives, many amazing doors will open for you, inshAllah. “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” – Zig Ziglar
8. Relax & enjoy the ride.
Whatever happens, I try to remember that “God is the best of planners” (Quran 8:30) and that gratitude is the key to happiness, no matter how productive or successful you become.
What are your awesome productive tips & hacks?Some of my favourite resources & people to learn from: Syed Ahmed, ProductiveMuslim, Tim Ferris, Michael Hyatt, ZenHabits & Muslim Life Hackers.