3 Productivity Tips from Winston Churchill

I am often astonished by how little technology can really help make me more productive. More often than not, it adds distractions. Take word processors, for example. I’ve argued before that a word processor for writers should do 3 things really well. When word processors don’t do these things, I have to spend less time writing and more time messing with settings and options and other nonsense.

I have also argued that the best project management books, in my opinion, are those that you don’t find in the self-help or business section of the bookstore, but instead in the history or biography section. That’s because, rather than telling somewhat what they should do, history and biographies illustrate what someone did do to be productive or successful. Which brings me around to three productivity tips I took away from reading William Manchester’s massive 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill.

Some context: Churchill worked in all parts of the English government. But at his peak, he was the Prime Minister of Great Britain during the Second World War. That makes for a pretty busy guy. And keep in mind, Churchill didn’t have email, spam filters, text expanders, project management software, and other productivity tools to help him out. At the same time, he didn’t have Microsoft Office to hinder him, either. Given this, here are 3 productivity tips I took from Churchill during this time.

1. Work where you are most comfortable

It is well-known that Churchill spent most of his morning in bed. What is less well-known, I imagine, is that most of that time was spent working. Churchill worked where he was most comfortable, and when he was comfortable, he was a more effective worker. I don’t think this argues that we should work in bed, but I think it does go to the environment in which we force ourselves to work. I have a home office, and I often feel like I have to work in there. But sometimes, I grab my laptop and go into the living room, or even to the public library and do some work there. Working where I feel most comfortable helps me be more productive.

2. Use the simplest possible system of priority

I am a failure at GTD. I’ve read David Allen’s book twice, and I understand the principles, but the system is far too complex for me to manage. Indeed, on the occasions I’ve tried, I found myself spending more time trying to manage my time than I did doing actual work. This is not a criticism of GTD, this is an admission of failure on my part. I need something simpler.

Priority is a good example. I’ve seen all kinds of systems involving how best to prioritize tasks, and almost all of them–whether Franklin-Covey, GTD, or some other system–are too complex for me. In general, I need to know what I should be working on now. When I finish that, I’ll worry about the next thing.

But I’ve found myself drifting to a model that Churchill used throughout his career in government. He used this system to delegate tasks to others, but I look at from the other side. How I handle tasks coming in.

As Churchill would dictate memos, which he often did while in bed, he would add one of two tags to the memo before it went out. Urgent memos were tagged “Action this day.” For these, he expected a response or action to happen the same day the memo was issued. For less urgent memos, he would tag it (in a different color) “Respond in 3 days.” This meant he expected a response within 3 days of the memo being received.

Looking at it this way, I generally see my own tasks as falling into one of two categories. The thing I should be doing now (“action this day”), and the things I should be doing later (“action in 3 days”). It is for this reason that my to-do list is a simple text file, each line is a to-do item, and the thing at the top is the thing to work on now.

3. Keep messages brief

In requesting responses from his staff, Churchill had a rule: he would not accept responses longer than one type-written page.

The younger version of me would think this is pointlessly absurd, but today, I see the beauty of it. First, it forces someone to put thought into the response. Second, it helps to ensure that only the most crucial information get into the response. You can’t bog down in details in one page. Third, it makes it fast and easy to read such responses.

I’ve found that I have tried to do the same with my own responses. Whereas I used to write lengthy email messages, I now get straight to the point. It’s almost a game for me to see how short I can make a message, and yet how concise and packed with useful information it can be. This helps improve my thinking on the subject, but it also is sensitive to the time of my correspondents.

In recent years, the some of the most practical productivity tips I’ve discovered have come from reading biographies like that of Churchill. Clearly, people have been productive for a long time, much longer than than the technology we have today has been around. There are times when tools like Microsoft Project and task managers just get in the way.

One comment

  1. Thanks for an useful info Jamie! You enthralled me with a Churchill’s biography, especially with his “bed’s efficiency”)) You’re right, people have been productive for a long time without any technologies. But I can’t imagine my life today without project management tools. For example, I use https://asana.com/ (free shared task lists) and https://casual.pm/ (helps manage projects as visual workflows). Nothing special, but really helpful.


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