The Three Fuels of Productivity

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.

Competing Levers

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.

17 thoughts on “The Three Fuels of Productivity”

  1. Such great reminders Matt! I’d also add in getting proper nutrition to the Energy section. Without the right fuel for your body, you may suffer additional fatigue and a whole host of other issues (sickness, aches and pains, brain fog, etc.) that then affect your productivity.

  2. I like how you’ve been able to wrap this in with all the great work you’ve been doing lately, Matt.
    Amy makes a great point about nutrition, and I’d add movement to the energy section. I’m reading Eat Move Sleep right now, and it’s bringing home how much I need to change my activity level during the day. I have a tendency to sit for far too long at a time working on a single thing. Even if I get some exercise later in the day, sitting that long still impacts both my overall health and productivity. Better to work at 30-minute intervals and stretch or walk around a bit in between.
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…Not Watching the Financial News Will Make You a Better InvestorMy Profile

  3. Great post and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    This helps me with my work. Time, energy and attention.

    I feel like time is always at a premium, but energy is what I struggle with because sleep is incredibly necessary. In 2017, I’m trying to keep late nights (1 am) to a minimum because it ruins my sleep schedule. It’s going well – most nights I go to bed around 11, but ideally, it would be 10!
    Erik @ The Mastermind Within recently posted…84, Charing Cross RoadMy Profile

    1. For sure. I am still working on a consistent sleep schedule. I am generally good during the week, but I tend to stay up later and sleep later on the weekends. Then when Sunday hits I can’t fall asleep when I am supposed to and I need to spend the rest of the week closing a sleep deficit.

      Thanks for the comment, Erik!
      Matt recently posted…Is It Worth It? (Why I Save So Much, Part 4)My Profile

  4. Great tips. I need to implement some better productivity habits in my life too.

    One thing about hydration–you probably don’t want to overdo it either. I’ve encountered a number of otherwise healthy young people over hydrate and end up with mental status changes temporarily due to hyponatremia. That’s the problem when you are in the medical profession.
    Smart Money MD recently posted…Replacing the flammable vapor sensor in your hot water heaterMy Profile

  5. Another well written piece Matt. I like how concisely you pull these themes together. Time, energy and attention are simply the building blocks of getting stuff done. If we don’t have a plan for how to maintain the flow of each of these resources towards a goal SMART goal then achieving it becomes pretty impossible or at best delayed.
    I like the point bout nutrition that Amy brought up, that 100% matches my experiences to date.
    In addition to getting enough sleep, I would also add consistency of sleeping hours as a huge factor. Mrs. Mofi hates when I wake up at 6 am on the weekends but I have found it beneficial to maintain my standard waking hours every day. Of the periods in the past where I’ve worked some pretty insane hours, there is a noticeable drop in creativity, patience and memory.
    Keep up the great work Matt. Your line of thinking is inspiring a series that I’m baking up in the background here 🙂

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