The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey
Updated: Jan 14
Productivity is a passion of mine.
I’ve completed quite a few psychological profiles over the years and almost all point towards an impatient perfectionist who always needs to find the solution somehow. I’m generally ambitious about what can be achieved and want things done both well AND quickly. So, I dislike inefficiency and wasted time. I often find myself thinking “there’s got to be a better way of doing this” and frequently believe I have time to squeeze in just this one extra thing. Being productivity focused is perhaps a more positive way of putting it, if it’s done deliberately and not just as a headless chicken running around mindlessly.
I first read The Productivity Project, by Chris Bailey, a few years ago. I was exploring how to enhance productivity within the business I worked for. As part of this, I was looking at my own approach to productivity and also how my own team and I could set a good example of productive working.
This is a very easy book to read, and each chapter has an estimated reading time at the start, plus a key “takeaway” point. It chronicles the author’s project to spend a year discovering all he could about productivity - through reading, interviewing experts and trying out lots of different approaches himself.
It starts with the obvious (but perhaps not particularly helpful?!) statement that we all get the same 24 hours per day “to live our lives in a meaningful way”. He then goes on to explain his own concept of productivity (with a focus on what we accomplish, not just what we “get done”) and to talk us through the key elements that impact our productivity.
The most productive people manage how they use their time, energy and attention to enable them to work deliberately and with intention towards meaningful goals.
Being productive in this way takes effort. One of the things I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I can be incredibly productive when I really want to be, but can also run out of effort and be very unproductive. However, I’ve also learned to ENJOY being unproductive, rather than feeling guilty about it. It’s ok to switch gears from time to time.
So what do I think are the most useful tips in the book, from my personal perspective? Skip to my list at the end if you want, or read through to discover some background to what makes it to the list.
Purpose and prioritisation
We cannot manage time, it ticks on steadily no matter what we do. We can only make choices about what we use our time for and how much time we allocate to different tasks. I believe that having a clear understanding of your purpose - what matters to you in each area of your life - is the only way to really prioritise what you spend your time on.
To prioritise, we need to understand what we care about and we need to understand the impact of doing, or not doing, each thing on our list. Why does each thing matter? You need a big picture and also a view of the details.
But even if I’m clear on my priorities, I find I can get distracted from what I intended to do, through more interesting/challenging/urgent items coming up and feeding my need for variety. The “Rule of 3” has helped with that. I can stop at a point when focus is a bit messy and work out the top three things that if I got them done would give me a strong sense of accomplishment for that period of time (hour, day, week, ...). I write them out in big letters on my mini whiteboard, or on three sticky notes on the bottom of my computer screen. Then every time I think “what’s next”, there they are, right in front of me. It actually works amazingly well for keeping me on track and helping me feel productive at the end of the day.
Externalising your tasks
Your head is not for holding ideas, it’s for having ideas.
In a work context, I’m actually pretty good at holding a LOT of stuff in my head all at once and remembering everything. This has frequently annoyed my colleagues in the office. However, I also love a to-do list. A previous manager of mine would get rather worried when the list became several pages long, but a key part of me being productive is externalising the tasks I need to work on. If I can get it all out of my head, then I have a much better chance of categorising and prioritising work. This approach also creates more space and less pressure in your brain, so that you have more chance of focusing your attention on what you choose to do.
Externalising everything also helps you discover what work activities you could be shrinking in some way. For the author, shrinking is all about:
Time-boxing activities, to help you focus on what you can deliver in a specific time period
Eliminating tasks that just don’t really need to be done (in comparison to everything else)
Setting limits on how often and for long you do low-return support tasks (e.g. only checking and responding to email three times per day, for up to 30 minutes at a time)
Making activities more efficient, while keeping them effective
Saying no to new tasks when you have other, more important, priorities rather than just trying to fit everything in
Sharing tasks with others - particularly where their skills complement yours
Creating attentional space for high impact activities
The author talks to us about managing our energy and attention, and creating the right space for focus on high-impact activities.He talks about the attention muscle that we need to work on (he gives tips for this) and encourages us to think again about all the good health messages that also help us manage our energy (nicely explained actually, with no lecturing).
Before Covid first hit in March 2020, I spent some really focused time on a project over February half term. I was working from a coffee shop (a different location, with a very different vibe) for just 3 hours per day (time-boxed - encouraging focus). I was working on something creative and meaningful, that I wanted to do really well. It was a Goldilocks task - challenging, but not daunting.
I made sure I fuelled my time with coffee and breakfast at the start (which felt like a treat, so that helped too) and lots of water throughout the day. I minimised the distractions (phone and email not even turned on), set myself clear goals for my time each day and reminded myself why it mattered. I narrowed my focus to the task at hand and maintained a gentle awareness of my surroundings (mindful practice helps me with this). Most importantly, I tried to do only one thing at a time.
Now, I‘m normally pretty good at juggling tasks but I also understand that all we humans actually do when we’re multitasking is switch between things really fast (like a computer) and give the illusion of doing more than one thing. This involves something called context-switching, which can REALLY drain your productivity. I’m lucky that I can context-shift without as much negative impact as some people face, but opportunities to focus on just one thing at a time really remind me that single-tasking can be a great way to work.
‘There’s no such thing as multi-tasking – just doing lots of things badly. The correct term is multi-failing.’ Pete Brockman, Outnumbered
The key practical advice on managing energy and attention is covered over a few chapters on taking breaks, disconnecting from work, letting your mind wander, becoming more present and mindful, meditation, eating and drinking for energy, exercise, sleep, and happiness. Lots of it we’ve heard before but the nudges are helpful and delivered well.
Tackling the tasks you don’t want to do
This book contains some good advice about what to do about the tasks you tend to put off or avoid, and how to make them less aversive. For the author this means making them less:
And making them more meaningful and intrinsically rewarding.
He also describes two techniques that I’ve used successfully. The first is having a “procrastination list” of small important tasks that you can do when you’re stuck not knowing what to do next, and perhaps avoiding something, so that you can still be productive while your brain gets around to wanting to do the aversive task.The second is “just get started”, which is telling yourself you will spend just 10 minutes on the aversive task and focus on the next do-able action. You set a timer and know you only have to spend that amount of time on it. However, often the dread of the task was out of proportion to the reality and you may find yourself continuing to work on it after your time limit is up. And if not, then at least you’ve made a start..
Top tips list
So, as promised, the top productivity tips that work for me (but that I don’t always manage to do, obviously…)
Externalising everything and then using something like Trello to flexibly capture and amend my “lists”
A few intended accomplishments signposted in a really visual way for a given time period
Time-boxing tasks - I’ll work on this for an hour and then stop
Single-tasking time periods to focus on important activities
Managing my energy through my choices around water, food, breaks and bedtime
Managing my attention through regular mindful practice
A last thought though, in pursuing productivity we mustn’t sacrifice actually being productive. Anything you choose to do needs to pay you back more than the time it takes.
Or we all end up like Rimmer revising for his astronavigation exam...