I read a lot of self-improvement books. Most of them are garbage.
Sure, they may have useful tips and tricks, but usually they contain about enough useful information to fill a blog post. This is then surrounded by fluff, anecdotes, and flowery language to meet the word count for a book.
This is what I expected when I picked up Chris Bailey’s The Productivity Project. I anticipated some helpful tips, but mostly fluff.
That is not what I got.
This book is one of the rare finds that actually has a lot of useful information.
One point that grabbed me right up front is that productivity is about managing your time, energy, and attention.
Time, Energy, and Attention
When we talk about productivity and getting more done, we tend to focus on time management. But time management is only one piece of the puzzle.
On some level we already know this, of course.
We’ve talked about the benefits of single-tasking.
We’ve looked into how sleep makes you more productive.
Topics like these are not directly addressing time management, and yet we consider them a part of productivity hacking.
But I’ve never considered productivity as concisely as Bailey’s words: the management of time, energy, and attention.
The big problem with seeing productivity as simply an issue of time management is that you stumble into “solutions” that detract from your energy and attention.
Sleeping less will buy you more time, but it will drain you of your energy.
Over-scheduling yourself will allow you to pack more things into your day, but will harm your attention.
Stepping back and looking at the big picture takes time away from your tasks, but allows you to better focus your energy and attention.
When we work on increasing our productivity, we need to be aware of all three levers.
Pick Your Poison
This framework provides a better context for some of the productivity research we’ve already looked at.
Prioritize. Given that there are only 168 hours in a week, does your time usage match up with your values?
Get more sleep. Americans as a whole are sleep-deprived. This saps our energy and makes it harder to be productive. The studies on this show that lack of sleep damages our problem-solving skills and our memories in addition to our mood.
Drink more water. In the same way that Americans are sleep-deprived, we are also dehydrated. We are actually more dehydrated than we are sleep-deprived. Boosting our water intake will give us more energy, improve our mood and concentration, and decrease our anxiety and fatigue.
Quit multitasking. While we think that we are giving our attention to multiple tasks at once, we are actually quickly flipping our attention back and forth. Dividing our attention like this makes us far less productive and wastes far more of our time than focusing on one task at a time.
Meditate. Meditation costs you some time, but it helps build up your focus, which allows you to better maintain your attention. We live in a world that is full of stimuli and has our attention bouncing from one thing to the next. We need practice and training to learn to harness our attention and focus it where we want.
Make a plan. When we leave a task without completing it or making a plan to complete it, a piece of our attention stays with that task. Our brains are still quietly working on and thinking about whatever problems we were trying to solve. This can be great for the unfinished task, but it takes attention away from the work in front of us.
Write everything down. This boosts our attention in the same way that making a plan does. When we get everything from our head onto paper (or hard drive) we give our minds permission to let go. This frees up attention for whatever we are doing in the moment.
When we think about improving productivity, we need to be sure that we are focusing on all three pieces of the puzzle. Time management is great, but don’t neglect your energy or attention.