Learning you have cancer can be one of the most devastating things in a person’s life. In this episode, Tim Stringer shares his struggles in battling cancer and the realization that led him to Holistic Productivity. Tim is the founder of Technically Simple, which is a coaching and consulting company that recognizes that a positive shift in one area of life can positively impact all other areas. Their approach to productivity is based on Holistic Productivity and draws wisdom from David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. He also launched Learn OmniFocus, a membership site that focuses on articulating and tracking commitments by sharing best practices that have been refined over the years.
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Holistic Approach To Productivity With Tim Stringer
In this episode, we give you different aspects and approaches to productivity. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. We have an interesting and exciting approach to talk about with Tim Stringer. He is a veteran of the technology industry, a professionally trained coach, a recognized productivity expert and, a seasoned yoga meditation teacher. He’s also the Founder of Technically Simple. Tim discovered David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology in 2008 while facing a stage IV cancer situation. The deep lessons from his healing journey combined with his new perspective on life and productivity have taken him down a fulfilling and productive path. He currently provides productivity coaching, consulting, and training to people and organizations all over the world. In 2014, he launched a membership site called Learn OmniFocus that centers around OmniFocus personal task manager for Mac IOS on the web. Tim, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Penny. It’s great to be here.
It’s great to have you. I want to make sure we’re on the same page with the readers and with each other. What’s your definition of productivity and why?
That’s a great place to start because it seems there are many different definitions of productivity as there are people. The one I like the best is that productivity is about producing something. It’s a creative process. That could be a typical work situation where someone is producing a report, organizing a meeting or something like that. It could also be producing positive health and feelings of relaxation. It’s something that can apply to any area of life. I like David Allen’s quote. He says, “If you go to a party and you don’t boogie, it wasn’t a productive party.” It’s what you want to create in your life. Productivity is the mechanism and the methodology for our taking to that place.The goal isn't to be more efficient going in circles. Click To Tweet
My definition of productivity is a byproduct of thinking and acting more strategically. It’s focusing on the things that are most important. Thank you for that.
Answering the question, what you want in productivity is the journey of getting them.
What do you want? That’s a big question. In your bio, it talks about how you got an extra different look on productivity when you were dealing with cancer, which is a serious situation. Tell us about how productivity came to play when you’re facing that type of challenge.
This was back in 2008, and unexpectedly, I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to live to see Christmas that year. I had a radically different perspective on time. I tend to be positive and optimistic by nature. A part of me saw this as a challenge to say, “This is a tough situation. What can I learn from this? What are some new things that I developed? How can I make this?” I didn’t necessarily frame this in productivity at the moment. What are some tools I can use to help me get through this? It was during that time that I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done book. At first, I didn’t think it applied to me. It didn’t seem I was in a situation where these principles are applied, but I was determined to kick the tires on it. I created a project around healing from cancer. Even declaring that and taking actions towards that being a reality was healing within itself. I see that as one of the key things that supported me in getting through this. Not only surviving cancer but also taking all of the lessons that come with an intense situation in life.
Whatever’s going on in your life, it’s probably not facing death which is what stage IV cancer could look like. To have that type of mindset, to shift your focus and to set and declare a goal that you didn’t even know if it’s possible. Stepping into that, it tells me the power of focus, the power of declaration and setting yourself forward to that. I want people to absorb that because many people get overwhelmed and they think, “That’s not possible. I can’t do that.” We get caught up in all the buts. It’s great to hear how you took that. I remember reading in a blog or something that you were in that. It said that you considered your cancer a circumstance.Acceptance is almost a forgotten practice. It gets drowned out by the noise of life. Click To Tweet
I was working with a talented coach at that time. One of the things she coached me on is to say, “How about looking at cancer as a circumstance?” Not to say it’s not important and significant, but she said, “For this conversation, let’s set it aside and say what does your life look like without cancer?” I had all of these creative thoughts that came forth. This real freedom opened up and said, “I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii.” I was bragging in those days about racing Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France because we had similar cancer to deal with. I said, “I need to do something around cycling.” I was also sharing that I got a lot from experience and I want to develop a workshop around it. There are all of these things that felt real to me at the moment, even though there was no way I was going to be cycling anyway. I could barely walk some days. I could at least take some action. I could at least register and arrive from Vancouver to Seattle. Some people thought I was out of my tree. There is something powerful about taking those steps that I could take in the mountain and stepping into an inspired future without saying, “I’ll wait and see if I get through this thing or not.” There’s an assumption that I’m going to survive this thing. I’ll take a lot of lessons with me. That’s one of the things that kept my spirits elevated and gave me the incentive and the motivation that I need.
By using the word circumstance and taking the actions that you did, it was an acceptance that this is where you are. At the same time, you’re not going to let it hold you back. The perfect word is a circumstance. It’s not within your control so you focused on the things that you could control. That’s important for everybody who’s reading. If you want to get yourself out of overwhelm, the important thing is to accept where you are, see what’s working and what’s not working, taking a look at what’s next and what steps can you take. That’s empowering for a lot of people who feel they’re stuck.
Acceptance is almost a forgotten practice. In a lot of cases, it gets drowned out by the noise of life but it’s one of the most powerful practices there is. In yoga, we call it Santosha. It’s acceptance of what is in the moment. It’s different from being complacent. It’s not like, “This is the way things are. There’s nothing else to do.” It’s more like, “Things are the way they are.” If I’m not in that place of acceptance and I’m resisting life. Resisting takes a lot of energy. It’s an unproductive state being in that mode of resistance.
I talk about that as well in terms of checking in on the, “Yeah, buts.” The bigger the yeah but, the bigger the resistance. Did you get into meditation and yoga before your cancer or after?
I’ve been practicing for a while and teaching it as well for quite a few years before getting cancer. That was one of the unforeseen circumstances where it was helpful to have that skill. Especially when we’re faced with something major like this, the mind can take us down on unproductive paths where it’s easy to fall into that victim. Not to sugar coat it and say, “I didn’t have moments of being a victim.” If you see my thoughts and notice that stream of thoughts, there’s a lot of noise and there are a lot of thoughts that are not useful. There’s a lot of subconscious patterning that’s playing out. Having that strength of mind to be able to recognize that and rise above it at least some of the time, that’s definitely had a huge impact. You hear all these stories about people who were sent off to prison for many years or something, and how did they survive? A lot of it comes down to their mental strengths and their ability, even if their body is in a rough state. We always have our minds. If we have discipline, we can rise above the circumstances and see the lessons, not get too caught up in it all. Meditation is essentially the training that makes that possible.
Everyone who’s reading, no matter what state you’re in, you could add a short meditation in your practice to help you be more focused and to help you be more resilient in everything that you do.
Like we take care of our bodies, we need to take care of our minds as well. That’s extremely important.
Tim, you came up with a holistic approach to productivity. Is that correct?
That’s right. I wanted to encapsulate the lessons I got from going through that journey of cancer partially. Hopefully, people can benefit from the wisdom and not have to face something major themselves and to have something that can be taught and practiced. I refined it down to four pillars. The first one is called inner reflection. It’s the importance of hitting the pause button regularly and looking at life like, “Where am I going? Where am I at?” It’s one of those things that’s easy to get into that false sense of productivity where we maybe think we’re going somewhere but we’re getting more efficient to going around in circles. There’s no clear definition there. It’s about sitting down, planning and saying, “Where am I at this moment?” Journaling is a powerful process in there. Even finishing a big project and taking some time to reflect on what worked, what didn’t work and what I learned, even if the project didn’t go well at all.
If it does go well, it’s valuable as well. It would allow this to work well. At the moment, it might seem like, “I’ve got a bunch of other things to do and I don’t have time to do this.” It’s more accurate to say “You don’t have time not to do this,” because this is ultimately what’s going to allow you to make the best use of your time. The second is Santosha or acceptance. That’s the importance of accepting life as it is. There’s a lot of stuff going pulling us away from acceptance like consumerism which is based on you need more stuff to be happy. There’s something wrong about you that needs to be fixed. Not to say there aren’t use products and services out there, but there is that negative side which is selling you something you don’t need or selling you something that’s filling the self-doubt.If we have discipline, we can rise above the circumstances and see the lessons. Click To Tweet
The first two ones are being more of how you end the process of states. The next one is focus. There’s a tendency to try to do too many things all at the same time. I certainly continue to find myself falling into that trap sometimes. It’s not even necessarily switching tasks, but having too many projects on my plate at one time. It focuses on choosing some specific areas and specific shifts to make. The holistic side of Holistic Productivity is that if you create a positive change in one area of life, it’s going to impact all others. The area that seems to need the attention might not necessarily be the one to put your attention on. Especially when I do this work in corporations, I’ll go in and give a course that centers around this. I find a lot of the times, people might be struggling at work. At the end of the day, they choose to focus on getting more sleep or getting more exercise. If they don’t give those things some attention, they might continue to walk into work tired and stressed every day. Their capacity for productivity is inherently limited through those things. It’s giving ourselves the freedom to look at all areas and say, “This area is the one that if I gave it some good and solid attention over the next few months, it’s going to impact all of my life. I don’t have to be working in all these different areas all at once.
It’s going to impact everything else. It’s going to boost everything else.
That’s being strategic about where am I putting my energy and attention. The fourth one is inspired action. There’s a tendency to say, “When I get this new job or when I finish this project, I’m going to be happy.” That happiness tends to stop. It’s always something we’re chasing after. An inspired action is getting in touch with what is that you’re creating in your life. Sometimes, we do an exercise for people imagining themselves going a few months into the future. Having it to use something, whether it’s getting their inbox under control, sorting out their basement or having a relationship that’s working on a new level. Inhabiting that space in a creative way, noticing how they feel at that moment, and realizing that they can feel that same sense of satisfaction in the present without those things necessarily have to be in place. Having that experience in the present, ultimately become something that inspires forward movement because they’ve had a taste of what’s possible in life. They’re already getting the benefits by being willing to go down that path.
Those are four important areas to help you to get more productive and boost your ability. It’s not even what you’re Getting Things Done. If you look at all of that, it’s creating more meaning in your life, it’s being happier, and finding more joy. I can see it being all of those things. In the end, you feel more productive when you feel happier. The studies have even shown that when people are happier at work or at home, they’re demonstrating greater performance and productivity.
One of the greatest sources of happiness I’ve heard the Dalai Lama talk about is to be in service to others. Unless we have some clarity on our gifts on the direction and so forth, it’s difficult to navigate those waters of being in service. What does that look like? How can we develop the capacity to serve others and be happy truly? There’s a lot getting done as part of the process, but I don’t think Getting Things Done is the point. Even David Allen, I’ve heard him talk about Getting Things Done. That’s not the reason he wrote the book, Getting Things Done. He wanted them to have more space in their life, to be creative and to have an amazing experience in life.
We have to put the message out there of what people think they want and you give them what they need as well.
The reason he named the book, Getting Things Done, is that’s the thing that was going to get people’s attention. Once they dive in, they realize there’s something much deeper. There’s a whole other world that can emerge from that.
When you said the Dalai Lama was talking about being in service to others, it reminded me of a study that was done at the University of Pennsylvania. They wanted to study and understand better. All these people who are frustrated and felt they didn’t have enough time. The levels of stress were super high. They wanted to see whether time was a factor in that. Have you seen or heard about that study?
I don’t think I’ve come across that particular one but I’ve seen similar ones.
They split these two groups. One group was given back their time. They took responsibilities away from them so that they had a couple of hours more a week to do whatever it is that they wanted to do. They give them that space so they had more time. Everybody’s saying, “I wish I had more time.” The second group, they gave them community service. In addition to everything that they already had to do, they now had also to dedicate a few hours a week to community service. They had less time and more to do. We had to do all these brain studies. They measured the cortisol and asked them a number of different questions. They were looking at the hormones in their system and what they were feeling. They measured it before they started, after and throughout the process.
What they found out was that the people who were given community service, their stress levels and their feeling about how much time that had gone down, they were happier and felt more satisfied. The people who were given their time back were equally as stressed as they were before. There was no change or it went a little bit higher. They had more free time, but they didn’t utilize it or they didn’t register in how they felt. That also speaks to the fact that when we get outside of our self, we’re focusing on others and giving back, it regulates how we feel in general. That ripples to how we feel about our time and our relationship with time.
That sounds like a fascinating study. Relationship to time is a key factor. We can be in this mode of scarcity or we can be in a mode of abundance about any area of our life. Whether it’s time, money or anything we might have not enough of or plenty of. The reality is we are given a generous amount of time in our lifetimes. A lot of the time, we’re disconnected from the world and we’re not present for a lot in life. There’s so much to distract us especially in this day and age and so much to pull us away. Then we’ve got some subconscious programming saying, “There’s not enough time and there’s not enough of this.” Having something that shifts us and coming back to practices like meditation or being in service is a way of strengthening our meditative mind and itself. I was teaching a class on this. It was fresh in my mind about them and our meditative neutral mind. That’s one of the key ways in which we rise above the duality of life is to meditate and develop that relationship through our thoughts.
I know you do a lot of consulting too on helping companies to utilize technology or you have in the past.
What I do is bridge the productivity methodologies and technologies. Technology becomes something that serves us. It’s not something that becomes a source of stress or a time drain.
They can be. Many apps out there, people moving and shifting from one process, one platform, and one tool. They use it for a little while and they say, “It doesn’t work,” then they go to the next. We do expense and believe that technology is going to be a huge support. In some cases, instead of boosting our productivity, it’s draining our productivity. How do you approach that with your clients?
The keyword is approach. There needs to be an approach to using technology. As I like to joke, owning a calculator doesn’t make you a mathematician. It doesn’t matter how good the tools are and how capable they are. We still need those basic life skills, Holistic Productivity and Getting Things Done. I’m looking forward to the day those are taught in school. They’re as foundational as things like reading and arithmetic. Once we have a strategy for using the technology, then it’s much easier to use it effectively. When I’m working with people for the first time, we don’t delve right into the technology even though they’re tempted to say, “I want to know how to use this up.” I look at it as, “What are you responsible for in your life? What’s important to you? Where are things fall into the cracks?” We’ve got a landscape of life and responsibilities. How can we use the technology to take some pressure off you to make sure that this thing got the appropriate amount of attention? It’s coming more from a place of purpose versus, “I spent all this money on this new computer device. I want to make sure I don’t miss out on any cool apps.”
Which a lot of people get caught up in. Does technology make us lazy? We think technology is going to fix it for us. Maybe we spend less time planning and less time on our approach than we would if we didn’t have the technology.
The technology itself is neutral. It comes down to how we use the tools and what relationship do we have with the technology. There’s an app used on Mac and iOS called MindNode. That one is an incredibly useful tool for me to think through complex ideas, get content in my head and bring the form to it. There’s also the journaling app that I’m a big fan of called Day One. That’s a powerful tool for reflection. There are apps that can help people with mindfulness, meditation and so forth. It can be potentially distracting and time-wasting but it can also be something that connects us with ourselves, our purpose and all of those things. The big part of my mission is to help people use technology in a way that enhances life, improves communication both internally and externally and also creates a better one.
Do you think that there’s a point where there are too many apps? If I look at my phone sometimes, I had to go through an app cleanse. I had to get rid of half the apps that I wasn’t using and they’re taking up space on my phone. I feel like they’re also taking up space in my brain. Is there an optimal number of apps or processes that you could say, “This is good enough?”
The key is having things be as complicated as you need them to be but no more complicated than that. I see both extremes where people have tried to use too few apps. Those apps get overloaded and they’re being used with things they’re maybe not designed for. They end up overwhelmed. There are people to have 30 note-taking apps and they can’t decide which one to use when they need to take notes with a meeting. That creates stress for the other extreme. It’s not getting clear about, “If I have a thought about something and a great idea, do I have a place to put that?”
If the answer is, “I have twelve places to put it,” then that’s a cue to simplify things. If the answer is, “I have nowhere to put that or I haven’t decided,” then that’s an opportunity to look at the system and say, “Is something on my device already going to do the job? Do I need to go looking for another app?” If the answer is “I need to find an app.” One thing that I always enjoy doing is finding the top apps that are out there and the ones that fulfill them. There might be 3,000 apps for taking notes, but maybe there are three that are seriously worth considering. It’s not even worth looking at the other ones. If those three didn’t exist, maybe we could look at the ones that are less capable or less designed. We have such a wealth of apps, information, and things that I believe are drawing from the best of the best.
That choice overwhelms us so we can narrow it down to the top three. It makes it much easier to make a selection as opposed to getting overwhelmed quickly.
That can be talking to other people as well. Maybe somebody’s got an app they enjoy. Not just what app is it, but how you’re using it and how you’re organizing it. A lot of these apps are blank canvases in a sense. They can be used in many different ways. It is having some guidance around how other people use it. I have a site that’s dedicated to a personal task manager called OmniFocus. One of the things I do is bring in people. We have interviews with people who have been using OmniFocus for a long time. They walk through, “This is how I’m using it in my day-to-day life. These are the ways that I have it organized. These are the other apps that I use alongside it.” Not to say that someone’s going to adopt that verbatim, but at least it gets them a good starting point. They say, “That’s close to what I need. I’m going to make a few little tweaks here and phrase things in a way that makes sense to me.”Unless we have some clarity on our gifts or direction, it’s difficult to navigate those waters of being in service to others. Click To Tweet
We all have different personality type’s approaches and ways that we do things. What works for someone else might work for us and it might not. Getting and understanding how people use it does make sense. You can see that’s how I would use it, or do I need something that’s more this or more that. That goes with the way that they were.
Starting off simply and then adding the complexity as needed, I’d say it has a good rhythm. If you do decide to switch from one note-taking app to another, I will do it completely. Don’t leave some stuff in the old one and keep some stuff in the new one. Say, “I’m going to move it all.” It’s like moving apartments or something like that. You’re not leaving a couch back in your old place and some books.
Be all in. Commit to it. The wishy-washy doesn’t work in any area of our life, does it?
It creates unnecessary stress.
Lastly, what’s the best productivity advice that you’ve got?
There’s some great advice from the yoga master, Yogi Bhajan. He says, “When the time is on a new start, then the pressure will be off.” I love that piece of advice. I find this for myself, if I’m dwelling on something, I’m probably not doing anything about it. Even taking one small action and taking even two minutes to write down some ideas or have a chat with someone, it’s amazing how freeing that is and how it does take the pressure off. It’s something practical that I try to practice every day and I benefit from it.
Thank you for being here. Where is the best place for people to get a hold of you going forward?
Technically Simple is my company. It’s TechnicallySimple.com. I’m also on Twitter, @TimStringer. If you’re interested in my yogi personal side of life, there is a website, TimStringer.com, where I’ve written some articles including some about my journey through cancer.
Tim, thank you. It’s been a pleasure. I loved hearing about the four aspects of your Holistic Productivity approach.
You’re welcome, Penny. Thanks again.
- Technically Simple
- Getting Things Done – methodology website
- Learn OmniFocus
- Getting Things Done – book
- @TimStringer – Twitter
- Holistic Productivity
About Tim Stringer
Tim Stringer is a veteran of the technology industry, a professionally-trained coach, a recognized productivity expert, a seasoned yoga/meditation teacher, and the founder of Technically Simple.
Tim discovered David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology in 2008 while facing a Stage 4 cancer. The deep lessons from his healing journey combined with his new perspective on life and productivity have taken him down a very fulfilling and productive path.
He currently provides productivity coaching, consulting, and training to people and organizations all over the world. And in 2014 he launched a membership site called Learn OmniFocus that centers around the OmniFocus personal task manager for Mac, iOS, and the Web.
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