Ottawa’s Chris Bailey turned down a number of attractive job offers after university graduation in favour of something even more attractive: Figure out how to be productive. It was a personal Odyssey, as he tested the ideas peddled by productivity gurus to see what worked and what didn’t, and added his own twists. The result was a book, The Productivity Project, which allows you to accompany him on his journey of learning, and a career as a productivity consultant.
He says the point behind productivity is that every day we get 24 hours to live in meaningful ways. But once you account for our various obligations, there is a paltry two-and-a-half hours of free time left to put to personal use. “That is where productivity comes to the rescue. I think productivity tactics–like the ones that I discuss in this book–exist to help you accomplish everything you have to do in less time, so you can carve out more time for what’s actually important and meaningful in your life,” he writes, adding that productivity can also ensure you have “a ton” of energy left at the end of the day for those pursuits.
The best technique Bailey found was the Rule of Three, starting every day by deciding what three tasks to accomplish by the end of the day. He had experimented with a variety of organizing systems and apps but found this approach–you should also begin each week by outlining three tasks to accomplish–the most effective.
Initially, he made his accomplishments too small and overshot them. Then, the reverse: They were too ambitious, sometimes intimidatingly so, and he was less motivated and fell short. It took about 10 days for him to find the right balance. And he challenges you to join him: Try the Rule of Three tomorrow.
Start with just the daily challenge and add the weekly goals once you are comfortable. Set an alarm for twice during the workday and when it goes off ask yourself if you remember what your three goals are and whether you’re on track to achieve them. (When you add the weekly three, also check how you are faring with those every time the alarm rings.) At the end of the week, review whether your goals are ambitious enough.
As well as knowing your goals you have to cut out wasted time. That’s where his exploration of procrastination can be edifying. At one point during his year of productivity Bailey was labeled by the TED Talks organization the most productive person you would ever hope to meet. But that same week he counted six hours of procrastination in his meticulous record-keeping, albeit he also accomplished a ton of work and felt super-energetic.
“The more aversive (unattractive) a task or project is to you, the more likely you are to put it off,” he notes.
That’s more likely to happen if the task has one or more of these attributes: Boring, frustrating, difficult, unstructured or ambiguous, lacking in personal meaning, or lacking in intrinsic rewards–not fun or engaging. Doing your taxes hits the procrastination jackpot, falling into each of those categories, while Netflix lacks any of those procrastination triggers, so it’s an easy substitute.
“The biggest reason your highest impact tasks are so valuable is that they too are aversive; they almost always require more time, attention and energy than your lower-impact tasks, and they’re usually more boring, frustrating, difficult, unstructured, and lacking in intrinsic rewards,” he observes.
Our prefrontal cortex, the logical part of our brain that nudges us to meet our goals, is generally at war with the limbic system, the instinctual, emotional part, which prefers Netflix. Much of his productivity improvements involved helping the pre-frontal cortex to win more frequently. For challenging tasks you have to figure out ways to overcome the six barriers. For example, he attacks his taxes in his favourite café and sets aside a $2.50 reward for every 15 minutes on the chore.
He also established a procrastination list to keep track and when stuck tries to find another high-value task to substitute. He writes down the costs of not doing the challenging task, which seems to ignite his prefrontal cortex, and tries to just get started, pledging to work just a few minutes, although often that extends. Understanding procrastination led him to cut it down to about one hour a week.
To curb your email compulsion, he recommends burying your email start button in a series of nested folders on your computer–rather than keeping it easy to reach on your taskbar–so it will take 20 seconds to access. Creative ideas often come in the shower rather than at work because your mind can wander and he advises taking 15 minutes a day where you sit with a pen and paper and just led the mind drift.
The Productivity Project
By Chris Bailey
Random House Canada, 292 pages, $32.00
By Cal Newport
Grand Central Publishing, 296 pages, $34.00
In Deep Work, Washington University Professor Cal Newport looks at professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacity to their limit. Such deep work contrasts with shallow work, with which you may be all-too-familiar, when you are caught up in the quicksand of little accomplishment.
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill and then make it the core of their working life will thrive,” he writes.
His research found four ways to accomplish deep work, most of them not easily accessible to government executives unfortunately:
• Monastic: Eliminate or radically alter shallow obligations, finding a monastery-like setting for much of your working life. Donald Knuth, a celebrated computer scientist, stopped using email on January 1, 1990, after 15 years, figuring that’s plenty for a lifetime. “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be at the bottom of things. What I do take long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration,” he said. He clearly wasn’t running a government department.
• Bimodal: People who can’t succeed without substantial commitments to shallow work can balance that with concentrated deep work periods of at least a day. Carl Jung would hold regular retreats to a rustic stone house he built in the woods, then return to Zurich and his busy clinical practice.
• Rhythmic: The reality of our lives may make those first two approaches unreasonable but we can build in solid routines to ensure we do deep work regularly. Here Newport points to, of all people, Jerry Seinfeld. Every day the comic takes time to write jokes he crosses out that date on his calendar with a big red X, trying to keep the chain of those marks from ever being broken. Make deep work a regular habit, complete with real or imaginary Xes. That takes away the energy you might invest in deciding if and when you’ll do it.
• Journalistic: Just as journalists are trained to shift into writing mode on a moment’s notice, you grab the opportunities for deep work, even if short. Newport stresses this is not easy for novices since switching from shallow to deep mode doesn’t come naturally. But it may be the technique you are most familiar with and can build on.
Just thinking about deep vs. shallow work, in the context of your day, is a helpful exercise. Newport urges you to develop rituals around deep work, starting with where and how you’ll do it–perhaps hiding away in an empty conference room or with your door shut. Think in advance of how to support such work, be it a cup of coffee brewed beforehand or some quick light exercise to maintain energy.
He offers a fascinatingly contrarian look at boredom: Instead of taking breaks from distraction to focus as we routinely do, train yourself to take breaks from focus for distraction. That means scheduling when you’ll look at the Internet and keeping other times absolutely Internet-free, since the Internet is a chief distraction in our lives. You need to rebuild the powers of concentration that the modern world has eroded. “To succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli. This doesn’t mean you have to eliminate distracting behaviours; it’s sufficient that you instead eliminate the ability of such behaviours to hijack your attention,” he observes.
If these ideas by Bailey or Newport hit home, you may want to include their books in your summer reading. Both are practical and easy to read.