Notes on “The Productivity Project” by Chris Bailey

In today’s busy world, where we are constantly trying to make a day last more than 24 hours, productivity is the ultimate buzzword. There are so many books and articles with advice on how to improve it, that one wouldn’t know where to start! “The Productivity Project” by Chris Bailey caught my eye, or ear to be more precise when I heard a summary of the book. I read it in the following days and liked its content and easy-going narrative.

The only thing I did not like was the length: I felt like the content could have been packed into half the number of pages, and I don’t mean by decreasing the font or line spacing. That’s why I decided to extract my main take-aways in this text.

Productivity Itself

Before you attempt to improve your productivity, you need to know why you are doing it. This will guide you when times get rough. Will being more productive earn you more free time to use with your family? Will it earn you more money for something you need? You have to have a goal.

Increasing productivity requires managing the following:

  1. Time
  2. Attention
  3. Energy

The first one is self-explanatory, but the latter two often get ignored, although they are just as important. Notice how, no matter how much time you make yourself work on something important, you can’t seem to accomplish anything if you are tired (low on energy) or distracted by checking your Facebook or Twitter accounts (low on attention)?

How Sleep Influences Productivity

“For every hour of sleep, you miss, you lose two hours in productivity.”

Sleep is important, but what is more important is to sleep when your body needs sleep. If you are a night owl, don’t try to push yourself into being an early riser (if your job lets you).

“Studies show that what time you wake up has no impact whatsoever on your socioeconomic standing, cognitive performance or health.”

Follow your BPT (biological prime time), the time of day when you have the most energy and attention. Try to figure this out by logging your time: when do you get the most done in the least amount of time? When do you procrastinate the least? During which part of the day are you most creative? Once you pinpoint this time of day, guard it as sacred, especially if you are in the creative business. Don’t let any meetings block your BPT, use it to concentrate on your work.

Three Daily Tasks and Maintenance Tasks

The human brain loves things that come in triplets: blood, sweat, and tears; the good, the bad and the ugly; father, son and holy spirit…

Use this kink of your brain to set your three daily tasks which are most important for you to finish that day. If you finish them, you will feel productive and accomplished. And what is more important, you will have been productive, instead of filled with busy work which makes you feel good but doesn’t bring you much (such as cleaning your desk or your inbox).

Cleaning up your inbox does need to get done, as do many other, so-called, maintenance tasks. But they are not particularly important if you don’t have a real ROI. If you have a big proposal due in two days, then that is your important task. Taking out the trash is necessary, but it won’t bring you any money. Try scheduling maintenance tasks for one day in a week: do your laundry, get the groceries, tidy up your place, etc. Maybe one day a week does not work for you, but you get the gist.

Prefrontal Cortex and Limbic System

The prefrontal cortex is the “youngest” part of our brains and also the thing that makes us special on this planet – it enables us to think creatively and solve problems. But since it is evolutionally young, it’s still in development and not very robust. It burns a lot of energy and tends to give up control to the limbic system easily.

The limbic system enables us to go on auto-pilot. It repeats the well-know actions and likes to take charge because it is energy-efficient. It is not very smart but likes to think of itself that way. That’s why it loves doing the no-work work, like making to-do lists, tidying up your desktop, any kind of multitasking, check mailbox and Facebook every couple of minutes, etc.

Does Making Lists Boost Productivity?

Keeping a to-do list in your brain takes unjustifiably much energy (because it needs prefrontal cortex activity) and keeps you from doing the creative work. To help out your brain, do a brain dump: write down everything you need to do. Don’t keep it in your head because your brain is burning fuel just by refreshing this list so you don’t forget.

Some lists that you might find useful:

To-do list – you know what this is; consider keeping a to-do list per project if you have multiple

“Waiting for” list – things you asked people to do and are now waiting for the response, but must not forget about the matter

Worry list – things that are keeping you up at night or keep nagging while you are doing something else; put it all on the list and schedule a time when you can think about those problems and solve them

But, don’t get carried away, making lists might feel like doing actual work (your limbic system acting up), which it is not really, so don’t spend too much time embellishing them.

I wrote more about to-do lists here.

Scary Tasks and Procrastination

Ever noticed how when you have a big looming task, which happens to be super important, you suddenly feel the need to tidy up your desk or your mailbox?

This is because your limbic system likes to keep you busy with simple, non-vital tasks because they make you feel good and super busy. The big scary tasks need your fuel munching prefrontal cortex to fire up and deal with it and takes a lot of will power and energy.

To start on the big task, you might want to trick your brain:

  1. The task is scary because you don’t know how complex it is. Before you dive into it, break it down into several simple, more defined and attainable tasks and take them on one by one.
  2. The task is not fun because… well, it’s scary. Try to find some fun in it.
  3. The task feels unattractive because you don’t have an instant gratification upon completing it. Make a couple of small goals for yourself to look forward to: when you do half of it, treat yourself to a short break and something fun during it. When you complete it, go out for a beer with friends. Or whatever you consider fun.

Internet and Attention Hijackers

A lot of online services are there to make us more efficient and productive. However, a bunch of apps and all their notifications are taking your attention and breaking your concentration.

Try turning them off during your work hours. Check your mail 3 times a day, don’t refresh them all the time. Facebook and Twitter will not go down if you don’t immediately tend to your notifications.

And for the love of God, stop multitasking! Don’t have a phone call and scan emails during it. Resist the temptation to just check something on your computer while on a staff meeting. If you are bored, you probably are not needed there at all.

Speaking of meetings, avoid the ones which can be done without you. It’s for the best.

Oh, and by the way, there are actual studies which have proven that multitasking is just doing crappy work on a couple of things simultaneously.

Working More vs Working Less

There are times when you need to put in some extra hours. This can buy you some time and make you more productive. But after a couple of weeks, according to research (and probably your own experience) investing more time doesn’t get more work done! Research says that, if you are working more than 50 hours a week, normally, you don’t get any more work done than if you had just worked the 50 hours.

There is a law of nature which says: a task will take up as much time as it possibly can. If you have 2 days to do a one day task, you can bet you’re going to end up consuming 2 days. It’s a rule. Like the law of underwear: a grown man can own 5-6 decent pairs of underwear. If you buy more, some of the old ones are going to rip.

Try to limit your workday. You have 8 hours. You have important tasks to do. Do them in 8 hours, don’t spend 3 hours procrastinating and then work until late in the night.

Don’t forget to take breaks: experiments say that you should chill for 17 minutes after every 52 minutes of work.

Meditation and Making Room

The author swears by meditation. He practices it every day and reports feeling negative consequences during longer pauses. I have had a similar experience.

Chris also mentions something very common: you know how you get the best ideas in the shower? That’s because taking a shower prevents you from doing pretty much everything else (well, except that one thing) and your mind is cleared for new creative ideas.

You can do this by taking long walks, preferably without your phone, but with a notepad to jot down your ideas.

Food and Exercise

If you are what you eat, start eating smart!

Sugar gives you an instant high and leaves you sleepy in one hour. Fruit, however, gives you vitamins and fructose to keep your brain purring for a longer time.

Pasta and dough take a lot of time to digest and they leave you feeling groggy and tired. Try eating more raw veggies instead.

Whatever you do, be mindful of your eating: set aside time for food when you can dedicate your attention to it. Enjoy it. If you try to multitask again, munch down your lunch while reading the news, you might just end up unsatisfied and want to eat more and again.

Coffee and all caffeine-infused beverages (yes energy drinks and yes even green tea) are not to be taken lightly. The effect of caffeine on your brain is that it inhibits the poor guy from processing adenosine, a chemical which signals that your body is tired. You keep caffeinating yourself for hours, adenosine does not go away, it accumulates until the caffeine spell wears off and overflows your brain, which leaves you feeling unable to do anything. It takes 8-14 hours for your body to process caffeine. Use that time wisely and pay attention to timing: make sure you are caffeinated during the time you need concentration and that it wears off by the time you want to go to sleep.

Exercise. It helps your brain deal with stress in a natural and positive way. We are made to run after we are confronted with a stressful situation, you know, like when a bear starts eyeing you. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between standing in front of a roaring bear and reading an angry email from a client or your boss. It expects to run for your life. Well, do it. Run. I wrote more about this here.

“When you exercise, your brain releases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a chemical that helps create new brain cells.”

Productivity and Happiness

There is a very strong connection between productivity and happiness. Productivity makes you feel happy about yourself. But happiness is required for productivity. Ever noticed how hard it is to get yourself to work when you are feeling down?

There are several ways you can make yourself happier and more productive:

  1. Crazy but experimentally proven: watching cute baby animals makes you more productive
  2. Spend time with friends and people who affect you positively – humans are very social animals and crave company
  3. Be kind to yourself – don’t beat yourself up when you haven’t done everything perfectly, everyone has a bad day, cut yourself some slack (but not all the time)
  4. Reward yourself  – promise yourself a treat for completing a task, sounds silly but it helps
  5. Make a list of accomplishments and update it daily. What have you achieved today? Even a small thing? This trains your brain to look for positives and, in turn, makes you more positive
  6. Don’t take the negative voice in your head too seriously. It is designed to be pessimistic and warn you about a potential threat. But it doesn’t mean it is right when it says you’ll fail or that you are crap. Don’t let yourself speak to you in a way you wouldn’t let others speak to you!

You can find out more about “The Productivity Project” book here. If you read the book, let me know how you liked it. If you don’t, did you find this summary useful?

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