UCL Alumni


Alumni blog: How to be more productive with Robbie Swale

Leadership coach Robbie Swale (BSc Mathematics 2006) recently returned to campus to deliver a UCL Connect workshop on productivity. In this blog, he shares his key reflections from the event and top tips for being more productive.

Robbie Swale

It's a sign of my growth that I no longer feel uncomfortable writing an article with a title like How to Be More Productive. Who am I to answer a question like that? I don't know the answers to this question... or at least I don't know that the answers I have are definitely right. I've come to realise two things, however: no one knows the answers to those questions for definite, but it's still important to help people with them. Also, I do know something about these things. I have wrestled with them and, through my work, have helped others wrestle with them.

I have also learned two ways to answer the pernicious question "Who am I to do this?" (read my LinkedIn article for more about this). The first is to literally answer it and outline in black and white why I am capable. The second is to understand that I'm not the person who can definitely do it... until I've done it.

A sign of all this growth was present when I was planning a recent talk at UCL, along with the UCL Alumni Relations team, and I came up with the event title: 'How to be more productive'. Again, I had some resistance to that (see my LinkedIn article about dealing with resistance). But I reminded myself, ahead of the talk: I'm someone who has written 270-odd blog posts, written four books, has two podcasts, runs a successful coaching business and all of that while not feeling stressed and overrun by work (or, not feeling that way all the time), and while only working four days a week so I can spend a day with my daughter. Even I have to admit that sounds quite productive.

I found giving the talk really powerful. Being in a room with a group of people teaches us things; I always learn new lessons when I speak to people, especially in a physical space. Here are some of the things that stood out from the talk:

  1. People don't feel productive. I started the workshop by asking questions. When I asked "who wants to be more productive?", all the hands in the room went up. But when I asked "Who feels productive already?", almost no hands went up. I was caught off guard by that: a sense that people - even people like teachers, paramedics, developers and more - who are undoubtedly working hard, don't feel productive. I didn't expect everyone to raise their hand, but the handful of hands in the room was surprising.
  2. Productivity is not the same as busyness. I then asked the audience "Who feels busy?". Almost all the hands went up, showing how everyone is busy, but few people feel productive. That tells us something about what we mean by productivity. One of the participants mentioned a dictionary definition of productivity as "a ratio between the output volume and the volume of inputs". Based on this definition of productivity, the people in the room were undoubtedly being productive. They were creating output. But why weren't they feeling productive?
  3. Making productivity human. One of the biggest insights for me from the talk came when speaking to a participant afterwards. He said, "You made productivity human". They had hit on something: one of the problems with all the productivity talk is that it doesn't feel human. It separates us from our real, human lives. The problem with the definition (above) is that not all outputs are equal and it sounds like a definition of productivity for a factory. In some ways, the same is true for the idea of time management.

If what we're really interested in is not output per input, but creating outputs that are meaningful or important to us or to the world, then that requires humanity. Because making meaning is a human thing.

In my work, I suggest people stop focussing on time management. Normally when I teach this content, it is less for reasons about humanity and more about control. Time is out of our control.

Instead, we can focus on other things that we can control:

  1. Choice management: We can't manage time; time keeps rolling by no matter what we do. All we can manage is ourselves and how we respond to things. See a previous article I've written on choice management
  2. Attention management: the way technology fights for our attention is insidious and almost impossible to resist, and many of us will lose minutes or hours to infinite scrolling before we notice. Understanding and seeing what is happening with these technologies and platforms is vital in choosing how we use and respond to them. See a previous article I've written on the attention economy
  3. Energy management: The energy we have affects not only the quantity of work we can get done in a certain amount of time but the quality of that work. See a previous article on energy management
  4. Change our attitude towards time management: Just stop complaining about time! See point 3 in this article.
  5. Put habits at the heart of doing what matters to us: If you start something and do it regularly – even for only 12 minutes each week – and keep doing it, after a few years you’ll have something – and it might be something magical.

Writing this, I can see how each of those things - choice, attention, energy, attitude and habits - are so much more human than time. Each of them are things that are really ours. We might write that we can put 'our' time into things, but really it's not our time. It's just time, ticking by. And even though you could argue humans created it, we certainly can't manage it.

To be productive, then, we need a more human definition, and to choose to focus on things we can actually control.

About UCL Connect

UCL Connect is our programme of professional development events, resources and networking opportunities. Whether you’re established in your career, moving into a new industry or considering your options post-graduation, the UCL Connect series has something for everyone. Learn more about UCL Connect and watch recordings of previous events

About Robbie Swale

Robbie Swale is a leadership coach, author and podcaster whose work focuses on creativity, leading with honour and the craft of coaching. Alongside his direct client work, he has run coaching, training and facilitation for organisations including Moonpig, the Royal Opera House, Deutsche Bank and the University of Edinburgh.

He is the host of two podcasts – The Coach’s Journey Podcast and The 12-Minute Method Podcast – and the author of The 12-Minute Method series of books, including How to Start When You’re Stuck and How to Keep Going When You Want to Give Up