Review: The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey

Producitvity Project
Go on vacation; read productivity manual. Yeah, that’s me in a nutshell.

I love projects. I love productivity books. And I love the kind of “stunt journalism” that requires writers to do crazy things in the service of writing about it.

Elevator Pitch
The opposite of lazy is not busy. In fact, lazy and busy are quite often synonymous states of being.

Reasons to Read It
I loved that Bailey provided useful tips for productivity in every single chapter. I did some of the challenges he included at the end of each chapter, and I found them quite instructive.

Some reviewers on Goodreads felt that the information he provided was too simple; in contrast, I thought the simplicity of his suggestions made them all the more effective. He’s quite clear that being productive is not that hard. You just have to set goals that lead to bigger goals. But if it were simple, everyone would do it. The complex part is why we don’t just sit down and do it. And the reason for every person is different. 

My reasons for not being as productive as I would like are pretty simple (and kind of embarrassing):

I conflate feeling chaotic and overwhelmed and constantly pulled in a million directions with feelings of accomplishment. That is, if I feel shattered at the end of the day, I feel like I accomplished something. That’s not necessarily true. In fact, it’s often a damned dirty lie that I tell myself. Bailey reminded me that when you slow down, focus, and become more measured, your limbic system goes nuts. Your poor little brain feels underwhelmed. It searches for something flashy to stimulate it. And it tries to convince you that you must be very lazy because how else could you feel so calm? Using your attention and energy wisely is quite frankly such an unusual experience that we don’t know what to make of it.

I assume that taking a break is for quitters. I’ve convinced myself that the best way to do anything is to power through it like a bulldozer, no matter how exhausted my brain is. Yeah, that’s totally wrong. And I know it’s wrong. Productivity is a marathon, not a sprint (though occasionally everyone needs to sprint). This book reminded me that prioritizing regular breaks with focused work sessions is good. It’s not being a wimp.

Ironically, I read the book while I was on vacation. When I started working again this week, I was far more productive than I have been in the past few weeks. The vacation helped me build up energy. And that energy helped me be more focused in my work. And that allowed me to finish things faster. I was tempted to work on vacation, but I didn’t. The experience showed me that I need regular work/writing holidays. My seven-day-a-week work habit is actually costing me time and valuable energy.

Finally, I really appreciated Bailey’s advice to prioritize personal goals, even if it means setting firm boundaries that other people won’t like. That’s something I’ve struggled with a lot at work.  Recently I’ve noticed that my friends with kids are masterful at saying no because they simply have no choice. They have to be home at a certain time, so they can’t stay late for one more meeting. They have to watch kids at certain times of the day, so they can’t check in on email every five seconds. But guess what? They aren’t less productive than I am. They are often more productive. That’s because they have to meet their goals in specified and focused time periods. I just need to learn how to say, “Yeah, I can’t attend one more meeting. I have to go home and eat Fritos while I watch baby monkey videos.” But when I’m not doing that, I need to be focused and fully attentive in regular, measured, and short periods of intense work.

Reasons to Give It the Side-Eye

I know some reviewers scoffed at Bailey because his “conditions” for conducting and applying his productivity research were pretty cushy. He was a recent college grad with no kids and no major responsibilities outside of his productivity work. I understand that critique. I think Bailey gets it too.

I think maybe that’s part of his point: You have to balance your responsibilities with your personal and professional goals to accomplish what you want to get done. You just have to figure out what matters to you. If you have six kids—but you also want to design a model for cold fusion and write a novel in Russian—you are probably going to be able to devote less time, attention, and energy to either your kids or your cold fusion project. And obviously some people have far more resources to balance their lives.

But the critics’ points do stand: It’s easier to be productive when you are privileged.

Worth Reading?
Yes, if only to be reminded that you are probably doing it wrong. After reading the book, I moved back to doing 20-minute writing sessions (followed by a 5-minute break) in 5 or 6 reps. I did more in 3 hours today than I did all of last week. And what I did is actually real stuff—not just fake to-do items. That alone is worth the time it took me to read the book.

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