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A conversation with Sally McGhee, productivity pioneer and author of "Take Back Your Life"

Continuing my interview series with the top experts in personal productivity comes another deep and wide-ranging conversation, this time with Sally McGhee, CEO of McGhee Productivity Solutions and author of Take Back Your Life!: Using Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 to Get Organized and Stay Organized.

If her name sounds familiar, that's no surprise. Her book is one of Amazon's best sellers in categories like Outlook and E-mail. And her experience and knowledge in the field go back twenty years - she was a partner in a company with David Allen, where she helped formulate the essential ideas of modern productivity practices like GTD (which she's taken in significant new directions - more below), and has worked with luminaries like Tony Buzan [1]. She's also an active Microsoft partner and contributor [2].

I'm very happy to share highlights from our delightful conversation. Enjoy!

Getting started in the field

Sally started out in her early teens in London, working with inspiring people like Buckminster Fuller, Tony Buzan [1], and Michael Wolf, who ran a corporate identity company. It was Michael who suggested that she was so organized, she ought to get into the business. She took this to heart and in her early 20s created a company that produced a paper-based time management system, one that she says was futuristic and included features like mind-mapping pages.

She sold that company, did coaching work with Jinny Ditzler [3] at a company called Results Unlimited (prior to its becomming Best Year Yet), and started a similar company in the US. She sold that company to work with Russell Bishop [4], who hired her and David Allen to work as a team [5]. Finally, they closed the company, with David and her parting ways. He created Getting Things Done, and Sally went on to found McGhee Productivity Solutions. (Check out their workflow model - it has some surprises, esp. around integrating goals. More on this below.)

Sally said working with these people (esp. Fuller) crafted what she calls her "psychological aspects in becoming a global citizen." This led to an early and continuing urge to make an impact, which she wanted to do in the corporate world, where she saw a need for education (it's where most people continue on-going learning after leaving school). I respect that she's taken many steps to move her closer to her goal.

Personal productivity and its larger implications

As I continue getting to know leaders like Sally, and as I get deeper into the field, I'm struck that it quickly explodes into every part of life [6]. Sally agreed, and says she's as much a student of life today than she's ever been. She continues to explore how to improve the quality of life for herself, her neighbors, her community, and the people her company interacts with in the corporate world.

She says this helps her in leading the field by redefining the meaning of productivity in the corporate world. It has to do with sustainability and values, starts with their Take Back Your Life training, but expands into programs that deal with how to create what she calls "sustainable cultures that combine increased performance with and work/life balance." This involves determining what processes need to be changed, and creating objectives that cascade down and up. It all connects to the four values she teaches - alignment, focus, integrity and accountability. (She cites Megatrends 2010: The Rise of Conscious Capitalism as a good source around this topic.)

The progression of clients from workflow to values

I asked Sally about whether clients come to her seeking these higher levels, or just dealing with the daily overload. She says that initially her clients come to them because they have a level of pain, e.g., around email, misaligned objectives, mergers and acquisitions, or accountability in the culture. Her experience is the larger culture conversations tend to happen at the more senior levels, and that the pain points lower down are around being disorganized. (She rattled off a bunch of symptoms including things falling through the cracks, being overwhelmed, not getting things done, no work/life balance, working too many hours, the kids call their phone, Blackberries, etc. Sound familiar?)

Once her company goes in and does their work, there's often an unexpected surprise where people realize there's a lifestyle change involved (something I've experienced very deeply, and which resulted in a major career change). She says not everyone takes it on, but many do.

Measuring productivity improvements

One area that sets Sally's company apart is their use of quantitative metrics. She says they use them because they want to foster sustainable productivity, not "quick fixes." They measure simple things, but continue creating more advanced levels of them. The simple ones include inbox size (before starting then six weeks after the program), time spent processing email, time spent on activities towards objectives, and time spent working at home. She compares these to more common evaluation forms that give a sense of initial enthusiasm, but don't track longer impact.

They support continued adoption via post-seminar services like webinars (which participants listen to a month afterwards) and before and after surveys. She says the webinar supports attendees in a review process of their system, and gives them an opportunity to acknowledge accomplishments and identify improvement areas.

They have larger programs, as well as products like her book and their Outlook add-in.

Top-down vs. bottom-up

In systems for self-management I've seen two major lines of thought. One is primarily bottom-up, like Allen's. The assumption is you have to get on top of your incoming stuff before you can free up your mind. On the other end of the spectrum is the type popularized by Stephen Covey, i.e., driven by purpose/vision (popularized by the image of climbing the ladder of success only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall).

When I asked Sally her take on this, she gave a good answer: that she doesn't know if there is ever one right answer. She went on to say the organizational context is important. For the most effective and expedient results, she ideally starts with an individual (Executive), then moves down to the team, and then the organization. On the individual level, Sally argues you definitely have to clear your mind in order to be able to see the "wood for the trees." When your email is empty and all your actions are in one place, it is easier to (as Allen puts it) get things done. However, she says there are many people working efficiently, but not getting the right things done - which fits more around the Covey technology.

She went on to talk about four fundamental paradigm shifts that need to take place with people. Her 2007 edition details these; here's my understanding of them:
  1. You must be selective - you are never going to get it all done. It's not about getting everything done, it is about getting the right things done. Then the question becomes, "What are the right things?" These are her Meaningful Objectives which, in her system, drive projects and actions. Questioning whether your actions relate directly to these helps make good decisions and to be selective. She says this moves you from a place of "coping and surviving to causing and thriving." Most of her clients are at the former level.
  2. You must manage your life from the calendar, not the to-do list. This is because the to-do list is infinite, the calendar is not. (This a consistent with Mark Forster's ideas around closed lists - see Do it tomorrow.) This gets you thinking about boundaries and limits, where people get the reality of, "Oh, my god, I can't put a 15-pound sugar bag into a 5-pound space." :-) Her book describes the weekly process of choosing which actions to move to the calendar. These are the ones you're absolutely committed to doing that week.
  3. You must make yourself as important as other people. This is important because we often feel that we must react to others' needs, thinking that's the only way to make a difference. This leads to not honoring those actions or time blocks we've made with ourselves (i.e., agreements). She says this isn't selfish because the individual's objectives should be aligned with the organization's objectives.
  4. You must be proactive, not reactive. She describes this in terms of trading instant gratification or a reaction for larger goals, and of standing back to do course corrections (reviewing and planning).
She finished by saying not all individuals or organizations are ready for these shifts.

Outlook, working with Microsoft

Unlike Allen's system, Sally works solely with Outlook. She says she saw Outlook as one of the best tools for implementing productivity improvements, what she calls an Integrated Management System. Her first consideration wasn't the market share (at the time it wasn't at the top), but the program's sophistication and potential. But she says her company is not just about the technology - they use technology "as a tool for helping people sustain long-term change by daily practice within the software. So the software does make a difference." Of course now that the program is the de facto corporate standard (with world-wide distribution) she's in a strong position.

Getting clients

Her clients initially came via referral, as a result of producing value in people's lives, but of course the book now generates a lot of business. In addition they use their webinars, software, PR, and their Microsoft relationship to open up enterprise accounts - their primary market.


Not surprisingly, Sally said networking is extraordinarily important because it creates community, which she thinks is required to make an impact. As puts it, "Things just happen more easily that way, and more quickly. There's more learning to be done, there's more contribution to be made. It moves it from 'either/or' to 'and'." She said she had to work on the networking piece, but getting through any personal discomfort was well worth it.

Biggest success factors

She described a number of factors, including: working with an amazing team of people - picking great people who are really committed; walking the talk (practicing the principles they teach); and communicating authentically, straight, taking a powerful stance for your vision, and not backing down.

She says her personal success has to do with having a vision and walking towards it. But the success comes from a group of people "who have tremendous heart and tremendous vision, and who work the process inside the company."

Future plans

She plans to write a thought-leadership book next year about cultural change and how to sustain what she calls "true productivity" - performance without sacrificing work/life balance, and supporting operating from values. It will be based on their experience with programs that are creating now, i.e., case studies with real examples. Sally wants it to be a larger-scale how-to book, separate from software.

Thanks, Sally!


Reader Comments (7)


Good interview. I do have a question about reference number 3. Is it coincidence that there are exactly 10 points? We see that a lot whenever people come up with a list. It is almost always 10 points. (It has something to do with the fact that we have 10 fingers and 10 toes.) When I see a 10-point list, I often wonder if whoever came up with the list of 10 deleted a few important points or added some extraneous ones so that the final list came to exactly 10.

November 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterNorman Wei

Hi Norman - good point. I don't know. How about 13? That's the number of maxims in [ Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1400081882?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1400081882 ] (see [ Whose job is it? Mine! | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2006/08/whose-job-is-it-mine.html ] ). They seem like a tidy list to me:

# The First Maxim: Say Yes
# The Second Maxim: Don't Prepare
# The Third Maxim: Just Show Up
# The Fourth Maxim: Start Anywhere
# The Fifth Maxim: Be Average
# The Sixth Maxim: Pay Attention
# The Seventh Maxim: Face the Facts
# The Eighth Maxim: Stay on Course
# The Ninth Maxim: Wake Up to the Gifts
# The Tenth Maxim: Make Mistakes, Please
# The Eleventh Maxim: Act Now
# The Twelfth Maxim: Take Care of Each Other
# The Thirteenth Maxim: Enjoy the Ride

Good question - thanks.

November 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hey Matt,

These interviews keep getting better. So, a round of thanks are in order.

Her background is most interesting. The diversity and exposure at tender years definitely show in her thoughts and best practices. I jotted down some notes for further contemplation. I find managing from a calendar thought provoking. I'm thinking this could be very helpful when doing a project with many sequential tasks. Good stuff.

I also liked the quote: "Have a vision and walk towards it". I believe this ties in well with reviewing and planning, and why these two activities are so important. Lately I find myself falling off the "planning wagon" and over a short period of time it becomes noticeable. Since I don't have any concrete metrics, it's more from the gut. A feeling that something is missing and it's hard to pinpoint. So, I'll work on that in the coming weeks (revisit my plans for congruency to vision). Generally its not that you don't plan, it's what you plan and what gets in the way of accomplishment.

Thanks again, keep pushing, and continued success.

November 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDavey Moyers

Great interview Matt!I found Sally's work very inspiring and already implemented some of her ideas in my own way of working.

November 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJeroen Sangers

Hi Davey. I appreciate your support - thank you. These things are really rewarding for me, and a good bit of work.

I find managing from a calendar thought provoking. I'm thinking this could be very helpful when doing a project with many sequential tasks. I agree. It's one area that's not uncommon for GTD practitioners to change. The Mission Control folks take this direction even farther ( see [ A GTD-er's perspective on Mission Control's "Productivity and Accomplishment" workshop | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2006/07/gtd-ers-perspective-on-mission.html ] ).

Thanks for the planning ideas, Davey. It's an are I've not pursued, but I know I need to. For me it comes up with very large projects, which are mainly creating new workshops. Extremely challenging...

Hey Jeroen. Much appreciated. I agree that her work is though-provoking. I'm glad I was able to introduce you to her.

November 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matthew, this is a great interview and commentary. Thanks for your ongoing commitment to excellence and productivity,


November 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMike St. Pierre

Hey Mike, thanks a bunch.

November 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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