A review of The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention and Energy, by Chris Bailey (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2016. 304 pp. $17.44, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle.) Citations are to the Kindle version.
Chris Bailey probably wouldn’t be the first person you’d think to turn to for advice on productivity. When he wrote The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention and Energy, he was a recent university graduate in his mid-twenties, with no income. He had never owned a home, been married, had children, or worked full-time apart from school. What business did he have claiming to be a productivity expert?
“While some people have normal interests like sports, music, and cooking,” Bailey writes, “as strange as it might sound, I have always been obsessed with becoming as productive as possible” (loc. 72). Upon graduating from university, he rejected two promising job offers, deciding instead to independently research and experiment with productivity techniques, testing to see which ones were most effective. The result of the project is his book, which condenses all of his findings into one quick and easy read.
If you were asked to close your eyes and visualize a very productive person, you might imagine someone working at a fast pace, jumping from task to task, never missing a beat. Although this might be the case for menial jobs, Bailey argues that it is not the case for more conceptual work. “Busyness is no different from laziness when it doesn’t lead you to accomplish anything. Productivity isn’t about how busy or efficient you are—it’s about how much you accomplish. Just because you feel productive doesn’t mean you are—and the opposite is often true” (loc. 3222). He advises working at a pace that is slow enough to allow you to maintain awareness of what you are doing and why. “When you work on autopilot, it’s virtually impossible to step back from your work to determine what’s important, how to think more creatively, how to work smarter instead of just harder, and how to take control over what you’re working on instead of working on the tasks that other people throw (or in most cases, email) your way” (loc. 230).
So, assuming you are working at such a pace, what should you choose to do? “There are certain tasks in your work that, minute for minute, lead you to accomplish more,” says Bailey (loc. 510). Work to identify the tasks that create the most value, and invest the majority of your time and attention in those. If you are an entrepreneur, for example, that could mean prioritizing your own learning, planning out your week, training staff, and automating repetitive tasks, while minimizing time spent on low-return emails and meetings. Additionally, he advises working on your most significant tasks during your “Biological Prime Time,” the time of day when you feel most energetic and focused. For many people this is the morning, but not for everyone. Once you identify the time of day that you are at your best, Bailey advises strictly reserving that time for those tasks that require a deep amount of focus. Shut off everything that may buzz, beep, or ring, and really concentrate. Dedicate a specific time for working on maintenance or support tasks, and resist the urge to waste your best hours on them.
Easier said than done, right? Procrastination holds us all back at one time or another. Our most significant tasks often are also the most difficult and frustrating ones. Bailey outlines many tactics to overcome procrastination, such as breaking down big tasks into smaller chunks, and making a deal with yourself to work on a given task for only a short period of time, in order to get started.
However the most profound point he makes about procrastination is about how you see your “future self.” He explains as follows:
If you were to lie down in an fMRI machine—a machine that measures your brain activity by looking at changes in blood flow—and you thought about your future self and then thought about a total stranger (like Taylor Swift), you would notice something peculiar when you looked at the two scans: they wouldn’t be all that different. Hal Hershfield, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, has conducted this exact study and found that while the average participant’s brain scan of his or her present self and a stranger’s scan varied quite a bit, the participant’s brain scan of his or her future self and a total stranger’s scan were almost identical. This has a huge impact on your productivity: the more you see yourself like a stranger, the more likely you are to give your future self the same workload that you would give a stranger, and the more likely you are to put things off to tomorrow—for your future self to do. Since you see yourself from the future as no different from a stranger, you also see her or him as less tired, busy, and more focused and disciplined than the version of you that’s reading this book. And while in some ways that will be true—particularly as you begin to implement the tactics in this book—you will obviously have a lot more in common with yourself today than with a total stranger. The more disconnected you are from your future self, the more likely you are to do things such as:
- Give your future self more work than you would give your present self
- Agree to unproductive or pointless meetings far off in the future
- Keep ten uninspiring documentaries around on your PVR that you’ll “get around to watching”
- Continually transfer aversive tasks to tomorrow’s to-do list
- Save less money for retirement
If I asked if you wanted to sign up for a marathon that’s ten weeks from now, chances are you wouldn’t agree to it; that would require a ton of work over the next several months to build up to running 26.2 miles. But if I asked you if you wanted to sign up for a marathon that’s two and a half years from now, though you still may not agree, chances are you’ll feel a lot less resistance to the idea. You’re a lot more likely to be attracted to the grand idea of running a marathon than you are to think about what your future self will have to do to get there. (loc. 1237)
I found Bailey’s distinction between visualizing one’s present self and one’s future self so valuable that it alone was worth the time I spent reading his book. It brings home the reality that if you do not do something differently now, your tomorrow is going to look the same as today. Time does not wield a magic wand that will automatically make the future better. As a popular meme says: Someday is not a day of the week!
Having abandoned the non-aim of “someday” and embraced the primacy of today, you are primed to begin tackling your most important goals. And yet, the trash does not take itself out, and your taxes do not magically do themselves. How do you deal with day-to-day busy work? Bailey offers some strategies on how to minimize the negative impact of chores, errands, and the like. He starts with identifying what you could call “selective perfectionism.”
Many people—myself included—are perfectionists. We have the tendency to continue to work on tasks beyond the point where they’re “good enough,” where the return on investing more time into them diminishes rapidly. . . . Past a certain point, overattending to more menial tasks simply cuts into time you would have otherwise spent on more meaningful or higher-return activities. . . . You can always make your house 10 percent cleaner, but does anyone really care? (loc. 1971)
Bailey goes into further detail about how support and maintenance tasks can be shrunk, delegated, or consolidated, and most effectively of all, how they can be eliminated. The word NO, he says, can be the most productive word in your vocabulary.
One of the most productive and successful companies in the world is Apple. While other companies collect new product lineups like they’re Pokémon cards, Apple has laserlike focus that has made it the most valuable company on the planet. The company has just four main product lines—the iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple Watch—and each line is just a few products deep and is updated only about once a year. At the time of writing, Apple is the world’s largest company by market capitalization, yet every product the company makes would fit on a small table. Saying no is what got Apple there. (loc. 2444)
Bailey advises a thorough review of all of your commitments, whether they be full- or part-time jobs, assets you own, friendships, clubs, hobbies, and more.
When you look around, you can find countless examples of how simplifying your commitments can make you more focused and productive. By doing this, you’re able to better spend your time, attention, and energy on the select commitments that yield the most, are most meaningful to you, and create more time and attentional space for those valuable commitments. The most productive people take the time to not only understand what’s important, but also to simplify everything else. (loc. 2447)
No matter how much you simplify, some “time wasters” are unavoidable. Things like commuting, showering, cooking, and exercise can only be minimized so much. For these tasks, rather than fretting about all the time they “waste,” Bailey suggests looking at that time as a value to your thought processes. Tasks that don’t require your full attention give your mind space to wander, and Bailey argues that mind-wandering is essential to productivity. When you make time for your mind to wander, you give yourself a chance to digest what you are working on. Afterwards, you will be much more likely to see the bigger picture, choose your focus more wisely, and come up with answers to problems that previously eluded you. “Taking the time to flip your mind into daydreaming mode can be one of the most productive things you do,” he maintains (loc. 2986).
Rest assured that when you take a break from your work, your brain will continue working in the background even though you might not be—and if you’re trying to tackle a particularly creative or complex problem, it may even do a better job than your conscious prefrontal cortex will. (loc. 2988)
Don’t be too hard on yourself as you try to make changes in your habits, Bailey warns. Work to improve your own productivity within a growth mind-set. Productivity is not something that you either have or don’t have—it is something that can be learned. Berating yourself over perceived failures is actually counterproductive; instead, congratulate yourself on your efforts and keep working at it.
In sum, The Productivity Project is a superb analysis of the principles and art of productivity.
Of course, not every method or tactic presented will work for everyone. I’ve highlighted the ones I found most useful. You might find some of Bailey’s other ideas and suggestions more to your preference. But even if only a few of his ideas resonate with you, reading The Productivity Project will provide a worthy return on your investment.