Productivity is the management of time, focus, and energy. To be productive means being deliberate, stop working and living in autopilot.
[A] mistake I think people make all too often with productivity. I had essentially reverted to a factory mindset and equated productivity with efficiency, instead of looking at how much I accomplished.
Efficiency is doing the thing right. Effectiveness is doing the right thing.
What are the right things? Things that are meaningful to you, i.e. in line with your values, and/or things that make a large impact on your work.
Disclaimer: you need to know your values, and you need to understand what impact different actions have.
Becoming more productive is a process of understanding your constraints, and observing how much time, attention, and energy you have will help you adjust accordingly.
Three tasks a day
Cozying up to ugly tasks
This is a simple reality of not working in a factory: the more valuable your work, the more aversive it will be.
We usually procrastinate on tasks that are:
- Unstructured or ambiguous
- Lacking in personal meaning
- Lacking in intrinsic rewards (i.e., it's not fun or engaging)
Author's strategies to defeat procrastination (in this example procrastinating over doing taxes):
- Boring: I go to my favorite café for an afternoon on Saturday to do my taxes over a fancy drink while doing some people watching.
- Frustrating: I bring a book to the same café, and set a timer on my phone to limit myself to working on my taxes for thirty minutes—and only work for longer if I'm on a roll and feel like going on.
- Difficult: I research the tax process to see what steps I need to follow, and what paperwork I need to gather. And I visit the café during my Biological Prime Time, when I'll naturally have more energy.
- Unstructured or Ambiguous: I make a detailed plan from my research that has the very next steps I need to take to do them.
- Lacking in Personal Meaning: If I expect to get a refund, think about how much money I will get back, and make a list of the meaningful things I'll spend that money on.
- Lacking in Intrinsic Rewards: For every fifteen minutes I spend on my taxes, I set aside $ 2.50 to treat myself or reward myself in some meaningful way for reaching milestones.
See also the idea of taking ownership on the task you feel like procrastinating on by making a decision, any decision, on it to stimulate the motivation center of the brain from Smarter, Faster, Better.
Meet yourself, from the future
The idea here is to do a lot of visualization of how your future self will be to avoid seeing it as someone else and overloading it (you) with work.
"It's so easy to commit your future self to things your current self wouldn't want to do," Hal Hershfield, a professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management says. "We call this a ‘planning fallacy."
Here's an Harvard Business Review article by Hershfield on the topic.
Why the internet is killing your productivity
It's not that I dislike the internet—just the opposite, the internet is one of my favorite things on the planet. I simply value my productivity too much to stay connected all the time, especially when I'm working on something important.
The internet hijacks your limbic system by overwhelming it.
The internet tempts us to work on lower-impact tasks. Though we are technically working when we do things like continually check our email, we're not as productive, because we don't accomplish as much through those tasks.
The time economy
[T]ime will continue to tick on at the same rate, but what actually fluctuates on a day-to-day basis is how much energy and attention you have. In the knowledge economy, that's what makes or breaks how productive you are, and more important, it's something you can actually control.
Managing your time becomes important only after you understand how much energy and focus you will have throughout the day and define what you want to accomplish.
[I]n practice, working longer hours means having less time to refocus and recharge, which leads to more stress and lower energy.
It's hard not to feel productive when you're busy all day long. But busyness does not translate into productivity if it doesn't lead you to accomplish anything.
[L]earn to invest more energy and attention into your work, so you can get the same amount done in a fraction of the time.
[S]tudies show that after roughly thirty-five or forty hours, your productivity begins to plummet.
An interesting idea on the topic is Cal Newport's fixed-schedule productivity approach.
This chapter circles back on the concept of Biological Prime Time making a point of scheduling your most important tasks to be worked during it.
[T]he more important and meaningful tasks and commitments you schedule during your BPT, the more influential and meaningful your work and life will become.
This is as much a science as it is an art. You need to be aware of your energy and focus levels and adjust accordingly.
[T]he more I adapt what I'm working on to mesh with my energy levels, the more productive I become.
If you're up on a roll on a project, with a ton of energy and focus and it's 10 p.m., why wouldn't you work a bit longer to become more productive when you have the flexibility to do so?
See also manager schedule vs maker schedule by Paul Graham.
The author suggests batching low value but unavoidable tasks like cleaning the house, doing the laundry, or grooming on a single day.
I tackled them all the next Sunday morning. And it worked. I got more done in less time. I've used the same ritual ever since. I call it my "Maintenance Day."
This is similar to Tim Ferris batching strategy in The 4-Hour Work Week.
A great tip I apply as well is to listen to podcasts of audiobooks while plowing along the tasks of the maintenance day.
Shrinking the unimportant
Answering email, attending meetings, and keeping up with social media are the "maintenance tasks" of work; they support the most fruitful tasks in your job, and just like doing the laundry and paying your bills, they're very hard to get rid of.
The best solution I have found to shrinking mine has been to set limits, both for how much time I spend on the task, and for how often I focus on the task.
[S]etting limits for support tasks in your work makes it much harder for them to expand and take up more of your time or attention than they need to.
This could be an application of Parkinson's law: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
A specific note on emails. Emails should be processed not checked.
Don't check your email unless you have enough time, focus, and energy to respond to whatever might come in.
Removing the unimportant
This chapter makes the case for delegating as much as possible and hiring a VA.
A rule of thumb suggested to evaluate whether delegating or outsourcing a task is worth the cost is:
How much would I be willing to pay in order to buy back one hour of my life?
Emptying your brain
This chapter makes the argument for using a trysted system a la GTD by David Allen, focusing on the value of collecting ideas in an inbox and the processing the inbox creating projects with actions from those ideas.
To summarize decades' worth of complex neurological research in one sentence, our brains are built for solving problems, connecting dots, and forming new ideas—not for holding on to information that we can simply externalize.
Moreover, having a lot on your mind is actually counter productive.
Bluma Zeigarnik named the "Zeigarnik effect" in the late 1920s: incomplete or interrupted tasks weigh on our mind much more than completed tasks.
This chapter is about how to think big picture and long term about goals and productivity.
While no one acts in accordance with their values all the time, the most productive people act in accordance with their values in the long run
[The most productive people] make course corrections every week to gradually get better at everything they do.
A technique to look at your projects from a 30,000 ft point of view is to group them in "hot spots":
Note that you don't have to use exactly those 7 hot spots. The core concept is to identify which of your values or areas of focus the projects you're working on touch, and to be intentional in what you decide to work on in relation to them.
As David Allen puts it in this podcast interview "keep going and course correct".
[O]ur mind seesaws between two modes throughout the day: a "wandering" mode, which we experience when we're taking a shower, and a "central executive" mode, which we experience when we're on our smartphones or focused intently on something.
Studies show that ideas seldom come up when our mind is in the "central executive" mode, which is why we should intentionally carve out time to let the mind wander during the day.
For the software developers out there, see Rich Hickey's hammock driven development talk.
People who are paid big bucks in the knowledge economy are paid to solve problems and connect dots, which makes carving out time for mind wandering that much more important—particularly after you capture the unresolved things weighing on your psyche.
The posterior cingulate cortex is the part of the brain responsible for mind wandering.
Attention hijackers & The art of doing one thing
These two chapter go hand in hand and focus on the disruptive effect of distractions on productivity, making the argument for avoiding them like the plague.
When you repeatedly move your attentional spotlight from one thing to another, your brain gets overloaded. And when your brain is overloaded, it shifts its processing from your hippocampus (responsible for memory) to the area of your brain responsible for rote tasks, making it difficult to learn a new task or recall what you were doing before you were interrupted.
You can design your environment to avoid distractions, for example by turning off your phone and the internet when doing deep work.
Another technique is the 20 seconds rule:
[T]wenty seconds is enough temporal distance to keep distractions at bay and out of your way, and this rule can be used to your advantage.
You can for example hide your social media app inside folders in your phone adding friction to open them, or use a browser plugin to add a delay in from of infotainment sites you find yourself wandering to.
"How to Configure Your iPhone to Work for You, Not Against You" is a post full of suggestions on how to remove distractions from your phone.
Alongside environment distractions there are also multitasking distractions. When working, or rather attempting to work, on more than one thing at a time we prevent our mind from being effective, even if it feels like we're getting lots done.
The multitaskers participating to this study perceived that they performed better, because their brains were more stimulated, but in every single study they performed worse.
Resisting distractions and multitasking is hard, which makes investing into strengthening your "attention muscle" even more valuable.
Research shows that when you repeatedly make a conscious effort to refocus on your work after your mind wanders, over time you heighten your executive control
This segues into the author's favourite technique to train focus, meditation
The meditation chapter
On the assembly line, 53 percent* of your attention was enough to do a great job. Today, your work benefits from all the attention you can dedicate to it.
The author approach to meditation and mindfulness is very practical. A tool for sharpening your attention muscle and get more out of your time.
This is what that hippie mindfulness thing is all about: creating more attentional space around the present moment, so you can focus completely on what you're doing.
I think we need a new word for this practice, as meditation and mindfulness are by now bloated and have reached the status of buzzwords in the past years.
Diet, Sleep, and Exercise
The final part of the book looks at how diet, exercise, and sleep can impact productivity.
From a productivity, and health, point of view the best diet is one rich in foods with low glycemic index, which can provide the brain with a slow but steady influx of glucose.
I liked the suggestion of how to change your food habits. Most diets fail, either because they are too demanding or because they are fads. But an incremental approach made of tiny changes over time can produce lasting results.
The power of incremental improvements lies in the fact that while they're not significant by themselves, week after week, month after month, they add up to produce long-term results that will blow you away.
I believe this is applies to many areas outside diet, like mastery of our working tools or relationships. It's also in line with my view of productivity as a life long journey, not a series of hacks and apps.
Liquids play an important parts too. It's important to stay hydrated.
I see drinking alcohol as a way of borrowing energy from tomorrow. But in the morning you have to pay interest on that energy loan.
because you invariably crash after a caffeine high, drinking caffeine is a way of borrowing energy from later on in the day.
The suggestion here is to be strategic with caffeine intake, drinking it before doing important focused work, and with the knowledge that there'll be an energy crash afterwards.
Also avoid caffeine for at least 8 hours before going to sleep. I've been doing this since reading the book with good results, although it doesn't help with toddlers waking up in the middle of the night, or possums jumping on your roof.
Sleep is an important part of staying productive too.
As far as your productivity is concerned, it's what you do with your time after you wake up, and whether you got enough sleep in the first place, that makes the difference.
Finally exercising has positive benefits.
Our bodies are built to walk five to nine miles every day to hunt and gather food, not to spend fifty-two hours staring at screens every week.
Here's two final quotes from the last chapters of the book that have stuck with me.
Productivity is often a process of understanding your constraints.
Productivity techniques exist to help you work smarter. But they're only useful when you still do the work.
The Productivity Project is a well rounded introduction to many productivity concepts and techniques, packaged in easy to digest and practical chapters.
It's an easy read, written in a conversation style, yet well researched. I found it shallow in certain parts, while other felt like they were there to hit the target word count.
It's nevertheless a good book I'd recommend to anyone interested in starting a life long journey of small incremental improvements.