Along with getting into shape, being more productive is a common goal people have. While there are a ton of books and articles out there filled with productivity tips, which ones actually work?
My guest today took a year out of his life to test all the productivity advice out there and has written a book sharing what worked for him. His name is Chris Bailey and he’s the author of The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy. Today on the show, Chris and I discuss the common misconceptions about productivity that lead people astray in their goals, why having a “why” is the most important step in becoming more productive, and why planning your day around your personal energy cycle can boost your productivity significantly. Chris also gives specific tactics to beat procrastination, strengthen your ability to focus, and manage your to-do list.
This episode is full of actionable advice, so take notes.
- Why Chris took a year out of his life to experiment with productivity
- The problem of “productivity porn”
- How Chris defines productivity
- Why you need to move beyond productivity as time management
- Why having a “why” is the most important step in becoming productive
- How to measure productivity in the knowledge economy
- Why busyness is the same as laziness
- How to figure out what’s truly important to work on
- How to manage the stuff you can’t delegate or eliminate
- Why you need to implement a Maintenance Day into your week
- Why you need a messy room to be more creative
- Why multi-tasking is your biggest productivity killer
- The Rule of Three ritual you should do at the start of every day
- How to beat procrastination
- Why you need to make friends with your future self
- How to figure out when your energy prime time is
- Why you don’t have to be an early riser to be a success
- Why you may have to change your approach to productivity as your life changes
- How to manage your attention
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Stop Hacking Your Life
- My podcast with Charles Duhigg about self-motivation and productivity
- Start With Why
- My podcast with Cal Newport about Deep Work
- Chris’ TEDx Talk on a more human approach to productivity
- The Eisenhower Decision Matrix
- My podcast with Rory Vaden about procrastinating on purpose
- How to Plan Your Week
- How to Slay the Email Monster
- Gloria Mark
- My podcast with Mark Kingwell about fly fishing and procrastination
- AgingBooth – app that makes you look old
- The Child is the Father of the Man
- How to Quit Caffeine
- Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time
- How to Become an Early Riser
- How to Quit Wasting Time on the Internet and Start Getting Stuff Done
- Breaking the Smartphone Habit
The Productivity Project is on the the most useful books I’ve read about productivity. No fluff. Just actionable and proven techniques. Pick up a copy today and be sure to check out Chris’s website for even more productivity tips.
Connect with Chris
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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And thanks to Creative Audio Lab in Tulsa, OK for editing our podcast!
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Along with getting into shape, being more productive is a common goal people have. While there are a ton of books and articles out there filled with productivity advice, which ones actually work? My guest today took a year out of his life to test all the productivity advice out there, and has written a book sharing what has worked for him. His name is Chris Bailey and he’s the author of the book The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy.
Today on the show, Chris and I discuss the common misconceptions about productivity that lead people astray in their goals, why having a why is the most important step to becoming more productive, and why planning your day around your personal energy cycle can boost your productivity significantly. Christ also gives specific tactics about how to beat procrastination, strengthening your ability to focus. This episode is chock-full of actual advice so take notes. After the show is over, check out the show notes at aom.is/productivityproject. Chris Bailey, welcome to the show.
Chris Bailey: Brett, thank you. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you wrote a book called The Productivity Project where you took a year of your life to experiment with being more productive. You tried all sorts of different things and then you cataloged it on your blog and then in your book. So I’m curious, why did you decide to take a year out of your life? I think you had job offers on the table but you passed those up to do your experiment. Why did you do this?
Chris Bailey: Somebody’s gotta do it, right? There’s a lot of productivity advice out there and this life hack kind of space, there’s this whole productivity-sphere on the internet and in books and literature. So I really wanted to take a year to follow this curiosity of mine. Some people have normal interests like cooking, and politics, and manliness, shaving, you know, whatever gets people going, but for me, for some weird reason, I have no idea why, it might be the fact that both my parents are psychologists, which kind of makes me bit of a weirdo, I guess, I’ve been into this idea of productivity. Productivity, it’s a word that has a lot of baggage attached to it. People think of something that’s so cold and corporate and all about reducing their life down to a spreadsheet, but the way I think of productivity and the way I’ve always thought of it is we only have so much time. So the best productivity tactics exist to allow us to accomplish more in what limited time we have.
So I wanted to take a year. I looked at how much money I had in the bank ’cause I’d worked up to that point so that I could receive a couple job offers. I looked at how much I had in the bank. I didn’t have a ton, but I thought, “If I eat a lot of beans and rice and live with my girlfriend for a year and really slummed it, I could make it through a year or 12 months of following this curiosity of mine,” where I could separate the productivity advice out there, kind of work as a sieve in a way, take in all the research, interview as many experts as would talk to me, thankfully more spoke to me as the project went on, and poured over journal articles and books to really filter out and experiment with what works and what doesn’t.
Brett McKay: So you weren’t just looking at life hack blogs to get the ideas for your experiments. You were actually looking at scientific research on the facets of productivity that are out there.
Chris Bailey: I think you have to. That’s the thing about the best productivity advice is … Here’s the thing about productivity advice, man. For all the time you spend reading or even listening to people like me ramble on about productivity advice, you have to make that time back and then some or else you’re basically just looking at productivity porn. There’s a lot of productivity porn out there and most life hacks are like, “Fashion this pen to a paperclip and put it onto your shoe and you can get more,” that’s a lot of hogwash that’s built into tactics like that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to read about and I love reading about that stuff as much as the next guy, but really, I think where productivity earns its keep is in allowing us to basically get everything done that we have to so we have more time for what’s actually meaningful to us.
Brett McKay: Right. You kind of mentioned how you define productivity. It’s about getting more done in the limited time you have, but it seems like you have a broader definition of productivity. Most people, when they think of productivity, they think time, time management, that’s what I do. What other facets of life do you incorporate in productivity?
Chris Bailey: That was the fascinating part of The Productivity Project, is I went into it thinking, “The way to become more productive is to work faster, faster, harder, harder, and manage my time better,” but when I started zooming out, because when you start looking at the factors that go into something like productivity, you really begin to get a sense of the ingredients that contribute to exactly what allows us to get more done. When you start at that definition, if you start at a different definition, you might come up with a different conclusion, but if you start with the definition of productivity where it’s how much we accomplish and more than that, it’s about accomplishing what we intended to do, that’s the thing too. If we intend to have a really business-like day and submit a few TPS reports, whatever those are, and we intend to ace a job interview and ship a new product at work and then we do, I would argue that we’re perfectly productive.
The same is true if we intend to have a nice … I’ve got one of these coming up tomorrow. I can’t wait. Tomorrow, I’ve got a massage booked, I’ve got a few books ready to go, I have some academic papers that I’m gonna read ’cause that’s what I do for fun, please send help, and that’s what I intend to do. I think if you intend to have a relaxing day on the beach and then you do, you’re perfectly productive in those cases, but when you zoom out to look at the different ingredients that contribute to your success in that way, you realize that productivity’s a lot more than just managing your time. If you can’t focus on what you intended to do, it doesn’t matter what you scheduled, and the same is true for your energy levels. If you intend to do this day and you burn out at one or two in the afternoon, your productivity’s gonna be toast.
That was the model that I came up with by the end of The Productivity Project. I realized that every single lesson that actually earned its keep, that actually allowed me to earn the time back that I spent on it, fell into one of those three different categories, either better managing my time, my attention, or my energy. I think all three of these ingredients are crucial in our productivity.
Brett McKay: Why is understanding that productivity is more than just time management important in our knowledge economy?
Chris Bailey: Because we no longer do work with our hands, we do it with our brains and because we have such a limited pool of physiological energy in our brain and we only have so much ability to focus. You’ve probably experienced that sensation where you’re trying to hunker down on your work and you’re staring at the same email for 10 or 15 minutes and looking at your response to it and you just think, “Man, I need a break.” Then you step back for a minute, you get a coffee or something like that, you take a walk. Then you come back and you rewrite it in two minutes and send it. These ingredients are so crucial because for that simple fact, we no longer just work with our hands, we do it with our brains now. We need all the energy and all the focus that we can possibly bring to it. Nevermind the fact that we have more distractions and interruptions than we’ve ever had before in our history, this makes this a more, I would say, holistic view of productivity, where it’s the confluence of our time, attention, and energy more important.
Brett McKay: One of the things I love about your book, you start off very broad, big picture, the 10,000-mile view of things. You argue that it’s important for people to have a why of productivity, then you have a purpose on why they’re being productive. What happens if you try being productive without a purpose?
Chris Bailey: This is one of the things that I found with the most productive people I encountered over the course of the project is the most productive executives, stay-at-home-moms, whatever person you want to look at, they had a reason for investing in their productivity. The least productive people that I found are the ones who worked on auto pilot mode. You’ve probably felt yourself falling into that mode before where your email inbox becomes your to do list, you’re working in response to the work that comes your way instead of setting a direction for where you want to go. So knowing why we want to become more productive is crucial. Having a why before you invest in your productivity, I think it’s essential to keep you motivated to keep going.
For me, it’s a sense of us only having so much time in our day to live our life. The clock is ticking. This is my reason. Your reason might be that you want to become Vice President and have a massive house or that you want to retire by the age of 40. Whatever your reason might be, in my case, it’s that we only have so much time. We think we live until we’re 90. I was thinking about this idea the other day so it might come out, it might not, but this is one of those shower thoughts when you kind of let your mind be. I was thinking about it the other day and we think we live to 90, but we spend a third of our life sleeping, so we basically live to 60. We spend a third of our life working, so essentially, we live until we’re 30. Once you account for the household chores, the eating, the kind of maintenance stuff we do, we might have a lifespan of 10 or 20 years tops. I think that’s why productivity exists is because we only have so much time to live a meaningful life.
Brett McKay: Right. You focus a section about measuring productivity.
Chris Bailey: Yeah.
Brett McKay: There’s that phrase, “What gets measured gets managed or attended to.”
Chris Bailey: Oh man, that phrase.
Brett McKay: Right.
Chris Bailey: It makes me upset. Sorry.
Brett McKay: It makes you upset. So why does it make you upset? Why is that?
Chris Bailey: Because in the knowledge economy, how do you measure knowledge work? You could have two programmers, and programmers are a good go-to example. You give them both an hour and Programmer A writes 800 lines of code, Programmer B writes 20 lines of code. How do you measure their productivity? It looks like the Programmer A who wrote hundreds of lines of code is infinitely more productive when Programmer B might’ve solved the problem in the first five minutes and solved it smarter using more experience and knowledge than the first guy. This is why measuring productivity is more of an art than a science in this way. When it’s about how much we accomplish rather than any other factor, it’s more difficult to manage in that way.
You look at where we used to work when we used to work in, I call it, the time economy in The Productivity Project where there was a direct relationship between how many hours we worked and exactly how productive we were. If we worked one hour on an assembly line, we shipped 10 widgets. If we worked 10 hours on that same assembly line, we can do 100 widgets, simple math ’cause it’s hard to do math live on a podcast, but today, the connection between how long we work for and how much we accomplish has been severed. We can invest more in cultivating how much energy we have and we can focus deeper on our work and get two hours of work accomplished in 30 minutes if we invest in our productivity the right way. Productivity tactics that allow us to do that are elusive. I experimented with hundreds of them over the course of the project and I probably whittled it down to about 20 or 25 in the book because these tactics are hard to find. The best ones allow us to take a step back and think about what’s actually important.
Brett McKay: Right. So it sounds like you’re saying you can’t measure productivity or is there a metric you can use or if you get the stuff done that you needed to get done, you are being productive?
Chris Bailey: I would say that. The way I measure my productivity is I keep an accomplishments list. So throughout the week, whenever I make a milestone in a certain project, whenever I knock something out of the park, whenever I ship something, I put it on the accomplishments list and I look back on that at the end of the week. I fall into this trap all the time, by the way, where the idea that we want to invest in our productivity or we want to become more productive, on a certain level, implies that we’re not entirely satisfied with where we’re at already. It’s kind of a problem to rectify, frankly, when it comes to investing in our productivity, but I’ve found that keeping this list allows me to really align what I’m doing over the course of the day to what will actually allow me to achieve more rather than just do more. When that connection between how long we work and how much we accomplish has been severed, that idea of looking at how much we accomplished has never been more important.
This is what bugs me about a lot of traditional team environments, by the way. I was speaking at Google last week and the way they manage their employees at Google is fascinating because they don’t look at how many hours the employees there work. Somebody could work 8:00 to 4:00, somebody could work 10:00 to 6:00, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is how much they accomplished, and that’s really what they look at at the end of the day. If there’s a pet peeve that I have with the way we manage each other in organizations and the way we manage our own productivity, it’s that we look at what we do rather than how much we accomplish. That’s the thing about busyness, right? Busyness is really no different from laziness when it doesn’t lead us to accomplish more over the course of the day. We could be busy answering email all day long or we could be busy checking social media all day long, but because not all tasks in our work are created equal, we have to separate what’s important from what isn’t and really align ourselves to work on that instead, I think.
Brett McKay: That’s great. That’s a great segue to my next question. How do you figure out what’s important and what’s not important?
Chris Bailey: Nothing like a good segue, right?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Chris Bailey: Am I right? The way I like to do this, and it’s difficult to invest in your productivity if you don’t first take a step back and consider what you actually want to become more productive on. I think that’s the thing a lot of people miss with the whole life hack space and productivity advice space, is you have to have a good sense of what’s actually important in your work. When you get right down to it, you don’t get paid to check email, you don’t get paid to be on social media, you don’t get paid to be busy. You get paid to do a small number of things. Usually most people in the knowledge economy, where we trade our knowledge and our productivity for a paycheck as opposed to just our time, we get paid to do more complex work.
I think one of the best things, and I write about this in the book, but I’ll give you the Coles Notes or the Cliff Notes summary. I’m in Canada. I accidentally drop these Canadian references like Coles Notes. We’re getting 20 centimeters of snow today, by the way, in November. It’s absolutely disgusting. I think one of the best things that you can do before you invest in your productivity is make a list of every single activity you do in your work over the course of a month. This is freeing in and of itself, by the way, because how often do you step back and think, “What am I actually doing here?” Once you have that list, ask yourself, “If I could only do one thing on this list day in, day out, every day, all day, which of these would allow me to accomplish the most? Which of these is the most meaningful?” That is the most productive task in your work because, again, productivity is how much we accomplish, not how much we produce. More than that, it’s about working deliberately and with more intentionality behind what we’re doing.
So taking this step back and thinking about what’s important is crucial. Once you get the first one, once you got that list, think, “What’s the second most valuable activity that I’m actually doing here and what’s the third most valuable?” You’ll probably find that after you’ve picked two, three, in some cases even four activities that are central in your work, your productivity after that will drop off a cliff because in our work today, only a few things are important. It’s mentoring new employees, it’s writing code, it’s whatever it is that’s central in our work. Everything in addition to that either supports our work like email, and instant messaging, and calls, and meetings, or it can be eliminated or delegated entirely. Long answer aside, that’s one of the most valuable things. It’s kind of tedious, but it feels good after you do this ’cause you get a signal of what’s important.
Brett McKay: So let’s say you figure out what your three or four things that are the most important in your work. You mentioned with the other stuff that’s not so important, you either delegate or eliminate it. What do you do with the stuff that you can’t delegate or eliminate? How can you manage that more effectively?
Chris Bailey: Like email?
Brett McKay: Yeah, like email.
Chris Bailey: Like meetings?
Brett McKay: Yeah, meetings.
Chris Bailey: Oh man. Do you have a lot of email? I’m curious what your email situation’s like.
Brett McKay: Actually, I don’t get too much email.
Chris Bailey: No?
Brett McKay: No.
Chris Bailey: You’re one of the lucky ones.
Brett McKay: I’ve made myself hard to get to.
Chris Bailey: I have your email. I’m gonna send you like five or 10 emails a day now.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, you have my email.
Chris Bailey: Just, “Hey Brett, how’s it going?”
Brett McKay: Yeah. “Hey Brett.” No, on my contact form, I don’t have a contact form. I have my post office box address.
Chris Bailey: Oh, that’s cool. Do people send you handwritten things then?
Brett McKay: Yeah, people send handwritten letters. Most of the emails getting through that form were PR stuff. So as soon as I put that buffer up, that just almost disappeared.
Chris Bailey: Oh man, I need to get me some of that.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Chris Bailey: I probably get, probably similar situation as you, 50, 100 PR messages every day where it’s just archive, archive, archive, archive.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I don’t get that.
Chris Bailey: Yeah, things like that, work like email, like meetings, we can’t get rid of email, right? Nobody in their right mind gets rid of email, but when we can’t eliminate something entirely, we can either delegate it. I have my assistant comb through my emails to archive anything that’s selfish or anything that’s too promotional so that I can deal with the rest. I check my email once every day at 3:00 p.m. The better way to do this and the more realistic way to do this, instead of delegating, is to shrink how much time and attention we spend on these tasks instead of delegating them, scheduling Windows throughout the day to check your email. I think a good place to start with this, it’s so difficult to make drastic changes like these overnight, if you can’t set up a PO box ’cause that’s kind of a cool idea. I might have to do that. I’m gonna steal that, man.
Brett McKay: You should do it.
Chris Bailey: Simply notice how many times you check email over the course of the day automatically. Chances are, the number is a lot higher than you think. I think it was RescueTime that looked at how many times over the course of the day knowledge workers checked email and they checked it an average of 41 times. When I saw this stat I thought, “There’s no way I check my email 41 times,” and so I made a little tally myself. I checked it like 35 times. It was ridiculous. We get so much validation and stimulation from checking it. It fires up every emotion in us and so by pre-deciding when we’re gonna invest our time into something like this, we can level up and become a lot more productive.
I have an auto responder where if somebody emails me it says, “I only check my email once a day at 3:00 p.m. eastern standard time and I’ll get to your message then.” It’s simple and people seem to not be too upset about it because they realize that email isn’t an important and vital aspect of our work. It feels important and vital but as long as somebody gets a response and doesn’t have to wait forever for it, we can level up and become more productive that way, by pre-deciding how we’re gonna shrink these elements.
I have a VIP email where the people that I work more closely with like my publisher, like my agents, like my assistant, they have access to this email address so they can ping me throughout the day and I can correspond with them that way, but everybody else, it’s kind of a filter in that way where I’ve pre-decided how I’m going to shrink these elements and deal with them that way.
Brett McKay: All right. So batch the email, only check it a few times a day, and just focus on email and that’s it. I guess another thing with that is don’t use your email as a to do list.
Chris Bailey: Yeah.
Brett McKay: That trips me up often. That’s what keeps me in my email all the time is I’m using it as a to do list.
Chris Bailey: Yeah. That’s a tough habit to break, but it’s one that’s worth breaking. It seems like an extra step, right? You get an email which has something you have to action, and then you take that and you put it on your to do list. It seems like more hassle than it’s worth, but you got to realize that when we’re constantly tapped into this world of email … I think it was Gloria Mark. She’s an intention researcher I spoke with in the project. She found that when we’re totally interrupted in our work, we can lose as much as 25 minutes of productivity because of that interruption. So when we have email notifications popping up in the corner of our screen and buzzing us on our phone, that can derail our productivity a lot more than we think, especially when it requires our full attention to deal with. So it might seem more efficient to use your email as a to do list, but it really isn’t in practice.
Brett McKay: How can you be more effective so it doesn’t interrupt your day and allows you to focus more on what’s more important?
Chris Bailey: These are those maintenance tasks, things we have to do to live a reasonable life that don’t necessarily progress our life forward in any ways, things like you said, making appointments, cooking meals for the week, which I like to do every Sunday, cleaning up around the house, doing grocery shopping and chores around the city. What I like to do with these things is … I’ve been annoyed by these types of tasks for a while. As somebody who’s into productivity, I don’t want to be a slob. You got to shave, you got to do beard maintenance and stuff like that, but at the same time, these don’t progress your life forward in any meaningful way. It’s funny we’re just chatting about batching because the best way I’ve found to deal with these is to batch them all together. I like to do this on Sunday afternoon. Yesterday, I made myself a couple cups of coffee, not at once. I made one and then drank it, then I made another cup. Have you tried an AeroPress, by the way?
Brett McKay: No, I have not. We’ve written about them before.
Chris Bailey: It’s very in the vein of what you guys write about. It’s the best cup of coffee. In fact, save yourself some money by not buying my book and buy an AeroPress instead. They work well together. I make a cup of coffee on Sunday afternoon and what I do is I sip on this while I go through my maintenance day list. So this has everything like setting a few intentions for the week ahead like cleaning up, doing groceries, preparing lunches for the week, which I do with my girlfriend, doing any errands that happen to accumulate. The idea behind this ritual is, first of all, you feel amazing when your whole house is clean and also your mental space is clean. There’s a direct relationship between how clean our environment is and how clearly we think. I’m kind of nerding out about this idea right now. If you want to be creative, you have to go into a messy room because the more scattered the physical environment is, the more scattered your mental environment is too and the more disparate your ideas and the connections you’ll make will be, but the opposite is true too. You feel more mental clarity when you’re in a clean environment, but that’s kind of a tangent, obviously.
So Sunday afternoon, I lump all these tasks together. I don’t do them throughout the week. I even have things like cutting nails on my maintenance day list because I don’t want to do that throughout the week. I want to make it a ritual, doing it on Sunday. You feel like you’re propelled into the week ahead when you tackle this ritual. Frankly, it feels kind of weird to talk about but it is one of my favorite weekly rituals at home because you feel like you’re starting the week with a blank slate and a fresh slate. When you set intentions at the same time, you know exactly what you want to accomplish in the week ahead.
Brett McKay: All right. So batch everything and just focus on those tasks on a single day.
Chris Bailey: Yeah.
Brett McKay: One of the things I found interesting about your book is that the theme is just focus on one thing at a time. I think most people, when they think, “I have to get more done, I have to juggle multiple tasks at the same time, multi-tasking,” but you talk about in your book the research suggests that multi-tasking is probably the biggest productivity killer and you should just mono-task or just focus on one task at a time.
Chris Bailey: Yeah, and this is, I think, one of the best ways to become more productive in the moment. One of my intention setting rituals that I love is the Rule of Three. I do that every morning. We can chat about it in a sec, but once you’ve figured out what’s important, it’s on a moment-by-moment basis that you work towards those goals. It’s not on a general basis. This is why so many New Year’s resolutions fall apart, is we make these grand intentions at the start of the year, but in the moment, one part of us knows we want a six pack by the summer and the other part of us wants to eat a cheeseburger and veg out with a bag of chips, watching Netflix. It’s in the moment that we actually become more productive.
The thing about the way our attention is wired is we don’t have a lot of focus to give to the world around us. One of my favorite studies shows that our brain has the ability to process 11 million bits every second. That’s how much information it’s being bombarded in terms of the nerve endings in our brain, and for every single second, 11 million, but in any given moment, we can only consciously focus on 40 bits of information. You can kind of look around when you’re listening to this podcast, what you have in front of you, what you’re doing right now. Maybe you’re in front of your computer, you can see that. Maybe you’re going on a walk, maybe you’re at the gym. In the room that you’re in right now, there are thousands of things that you can focus on, individual thoughts going on in your head, objects in your environment, but you can only consciously focus on 40. The amount of attention we have to give to what’s in front of us is very, very constrained.
The idea that multi-tasking doesn’t work is a bit of a myth, frankly, but in only a certain way, where we can multi-task on habitual things, things that don’t take conscious energy. You can breathe while you’re working, thank God. We do have this automatically without much thought so they don’t take up too much intentional space. We can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. We can even do habitual tasks on the computer like reading the news while doing a bit of habitual emailing, but the most vital tasks in our work, the ones, if you did the activity we were chatting about where you take a step back and filter out what’s important from what isn’t, those most vital tasks in your work, regardless of the work you do, are so important because they take more of your attention and more of your energy, and if you’re productive, more of your time than any other task in your work.
Most people, 1% of people, these super-taskers are able to do this, maybe even less than 1%, but most people can’t actively focus on more than one of these at one time because for the simple fact that your productivity benefits the more attention you focus on these. They’re more detailed, they’re more immersive, they take more focus to do right. So this is why multi-tasking doesn’t work because the most productive tasks in our work require more of us.
Brett McKay: So that’s why you argue instead of having this massive to do list in front of you where you’re just checking off things, just narrow your to do list to three big tasks a day.
Chris Bailey: Yeah. This is called the Rule of Three, and it’s one of my favorite rituals. Here it is. It’s a simple thing that you can action right away. Again, you have to earn the time you spend investing in productivity advice back. This, you’ll earn back 100 times over every morning. At the start of the day, you fast forward to the end of the day in your head and you ask yourself, “By the time this day is done, what three main things will I want to have accomplished?” It does a number of things. It sounds like a simple rule, but at one time, it allows you to separate what’s important that day from what isn’t. Unlike a lot of other systems where it takes hours to organize everything on your plate and you lose a lot of time actually working and actually being productive on those things, it only takes three, four minutes every morning where you define these three things and you separate what’s important from what isn’t. You can consider your constraints at the same time.
I’m an entrepreneur, I work for myself, I have a lot of autonomy in my work as you likely do too, and we have more flexibility and more control over what we intend to accomplish, but we can consider the constraints. So if we have a full day of meetings or if we’re working a job where we don’t have total freedom and flexibility with how we spend our time, attention, and energy, we can adjust our schedule accordingly and our intentions accordingly. Sometimes our day will inform what we intend to accomplish.
By the way, at the start of the day I do this and also at the start of the week. Every Sunday, I define my three weekly intentions for work and for home. So this is how I get some modicum of balance for the week ahead. This is the idea that we don’t work on auto pilot to become more productive. We work deliberately and with intention to become more productive. It’s kind of where that idea filters down. We start by looking at what’s important in general in our work. Then we look at what’s important every week. Then we look at what we intend to do every day. If we only did three things all day every day, we probably wouldn’t have a job after much of a period of time.
So we need a to do list in conjunction with this to manage what we have to get done, but when we bring that down to the moment where we work on one thing at one time, especially when we have the most energy throughout the day, that is the stuff that productivity dreams are made of. I’m a bit of a nerd about this stuff so I might be a bit more into this than some other people, but that excites me more than anything because that’s how we actually achieve our broader goals. That’s actually how we accomplish more because when we do those three things, we can choose what’s important and actually act towards that every day and every moment.
Brett McKay: We’ll talk about energy management here in a bit, but let’s talk about procrastination. Let’s say you have some task on your Rule of Three list that’s super boring, it’s hard, but it’s completely vital in order for you to progress to where you want to get. So you just put it off, and you put it off, and you put it off. Why do we procrastinate? Is it because stuff is boring and hard or is there something else to why we procrastinate?
Chris Bailey: Yeah. What’s something you’re procrastinating on right now? I’ll put you on the spot.
Brett McKay: Let’s see, I’m procrastinating on making some edits to a book that we’re publishing here pretty soon.
Chris Bailey: Oh, nice. When you look at a task like that, making edits to a book, I found the same thing when I was editing my book or looking over the edits that other people made. It turns out that there are certain attributes a task can have that make us more likely to procrastinate on it. If I remember right, there’s seven of them and I’m going to try to remember them here. Like you said, it’s boring. Editing a book, pretty boring. It’s frustrating, whether it’s difficult, whether it lacks personal meaning, whether it lacks intrinsic rewards, so it’s not rewarding in and of itself, whether it’s ambiguous, or whether it’s unstructured. The more of these triggers, essentially, a task has, the more likely you are to put it off. Editing a book, it’s pretty boring, it’s a bit frustrating because it requires a lot of attention, it’s difficult. It might be difficult, but it might be more tedious than difficult. It’s not really rewarding in and of itself because books are pretty long, as people know. It’s pretty ambiguous and it’s definitely unstructured.
So this is why we procrastinate on stuff. You look at something that you don’t procrastinate on like watching Netflix as an example. I wouldn’t know anything about that, but watching Netflix doesn’t have any of these. It’s not boring, it’s not frustrating, it’s not difficult at all, it probably lacks personal meaning unless you’re watching nature documentaries or something. It’s not ambiguous, it’s not unstructured. In fact, it’s so structured that you get a little preview of the next episode and it automatically starts playing before you’re finished watching the current episode. As a productivity expert, I only know this from the research that I’ve done, obviously, but it doesn’t have any of these triggers so we don’t put it off. Doing our taxes has most of them.
By using this science behind why we procrastinate, it turns out that we can actually flip these triggers around. If editing the book is boring, if you find yourself putting it off, you can make a plan to reverse that. If it’s boring, you can go to a fancy café and get a latte. It’s almost Christmas here and so maybe you can get one of those candy cane lattes or something. I had a rosemary latte the other day. You know rosemary, the herb? It’s pretty good, in Ottawa here. If anybody’s in Ottawa, email me and I’ll let you know the place. You can make it less boring by doing that. That makes it less frustrating at the same time. If it’s unstructured, you can make the plan over the next, say, two weeks to do chapter one this day and chapter two this day, and make a schedule for when you’re gonna do these things. By making this plan and setting these intentions, you can actually reverse the triggers around and make it a more enjoyable experience and less likely that you’ll put it off.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Any other tactics besides tweaking the triggers to reduce procrastination?
Chris Bailey: Part of it is thinking about your future self at the same time. This is one of my favorite tactics and it’s kind of a weird one, but we are so disconnected with our future self, which is basically just ourself but in the future. In front of me here on my desk, I have a nice framed picture of myself, as most egotistical people do, but this picture of myself is of a 60-year-old version of me. I had this picture done up and framed. I actually got a fracture done where they print the picture on a glass. It’s pretty cool. It sits on my desk all day so that I can consider myself in the future. It’s kind of a simple cue.
So often, we put stuff off because we’re disconnected with our future self. So this is why we have a bunch of … To work off of a Netflix theme here, I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix this weekend. I was reorganizing my filing cabinet on maintenance day yesterday and so I got through a few episodes of shows, but this is why we have documentaries that we’re bound to watch someday, we buy all these classic books and then we end up reading the trashy books or end up listening to other stuff instead or watching TV, because we’re disconnected with this idea of our future self.
In fact, if you wheel yourself, Brett, into a brain scanning machine, into an FMRI machine and I told you, “Brett, think about yourself in 20 or 30 years and then think of George Clooney,” the fascinating things about these brain scans would be that they were basically identical to one another. So we basically view our future self as a stranger, which is why we put stuff off. This is why we agree to, where we wouldn’t want to have coffee with somebody tomorrow, we agree to coffee with them three weeks from now. This is why we sign up for weird courses and stuff down the line where we wouldn’t want to necessarily do it next week.
So by considering the idea that in the future, we’ll basically be as we are now except maybe a little bit more productive and successful, we can consider the idea that chances are, we won’t have an infinite amount of energy later on. Chances are, we won’t have boundless time. Maybe we’ll even have less time if the trend continues, or more time if we invest in our productivity. We can consider the idea that most things are worth doing right away.
Brett McKay: Right. Okay, that’s fantastic. So let’s talk about managing energy. You say that productivity isn’t just about managing time, it’s also about managing your energy as well. You argue that in order to be the most productive you can be, you need to work in your biological prime time.
Chris Bailey: Oh yes.
Brett McKay: How do we figure out what these prime times are, first?
Chris Bailey: I did it kind of an intense way in The Productivity Project because why not? I only had a year to do this stuff. What I did for the span of three weeks, and I did a little prep before, is I cut out caffeine, I cut out alcohol, I cut out sugary foods because they kind of spike and influence your energy levels and then you crash, I ate small meals so that my energy was frequent throughout the day, and I woke up and fell asleep naturally. All of these ingredients influence how much energy we have over the course of the day and after I cut these out, and caffeine I cut out beforehand because it takes our body a little while to catch up and beat the caffeine withdrawal, is I charted how much energy I had out of 10 every single hour every single day for three weeks. Excuse me. I need some more coffee, I think.
Then I charted how much energy I had and I looked at how much the trend lines over the course of these three weeks and I found something remarkable. It was that, without fail, there were natural patterns to my energy levels over the course of this time. So I found between the hours of 10:00 and noon and 5:00 and 8:00 p.m. I had more energy than in any other hour of the day. I did a bit of digging into this and part of this depends on our chronotype, which you might have heard of, which basically dictates how much energy we have over the course of the day.
So morning birds, these people who rise at 5:00 a.m. to meditate and do yoga and stuff like that, they have more energy early on in the day. Other people who kind of half stumble out of bed and struggle to get by, like me, I’m one of these people who works late into the night because that’s when I have the most energy, we have more energy later on in the day. The idea is, by getting a sense and a feel for when we naturally have the most energy, we can adjust our schedule accordingly and shape it around when we naturally are the most productive.
There’s a direct connection between how much energy we have and how productive we are. The more energy we bring to our work, the more we’re gonna accomplish. Because, as we were chatting, not all tasks in our work are created equal, when we do our most vital tasks like the three intentions that we set at the start of the day, when we naturally have the most energy. I like to do my three daily intentions between 10:00 and noon and between 5:00 and 8:00 PM. That’s because I want those to be as productive as possible and I want to do as good of a job as I possibly can on them. Tasks like email, I check my email every day at 3:00 p.m. for the simple fact that I have the least amount of energy then and email isn’t that vital of a task for me.
We usually don’t have total control and flexibility over how we manage our schedule over the course of the day, but we usually have some. We can come in a bit later into work if we have flex hours and we are more productive later on in the day or we can show up at 7:00 a.m., not p.m., and be productive in those hours if we find we have the most energy then. Not all hours of the day are created equal. There are some when we’re naturally more productive than in others and by shaping our schedule around those hours, we can level up to become even more productive that way.
Brett McKay: Great stuff. Yeah, I’ve been trying to do a better job of scheduling my work around my energy levels. I know that I’m more focused in the mid-morning so I try to do more of my writing during those times. Yeah, email, I save for when I’m just like-
Chris Bailey: Are you a morning bird? What’d you say? Like, what time do you usually get up at?
Brett McKay: I feel like I used to be a morning bird but I’ve slowly shifted to being a night owl for some reason. I don’t know why. I’ve kind of just let it happen.
Chris Bailey: That’s funny. Maybe you were trying to force waking up early into your schedule. This is what I found because our chronotype and the way we’re wired stays pretty consistent over time. I think a lot of people like the idea of being an early riser and I did dozens of productivity experiments over the course of the project and things like living in isolation for 10 days, I meditated for 35 hours one week, I became a total slob for another week, all in the name of productivity, but another one of them was waking up at 5:30 every day. It took me a few months to wedge this schedule and this routine into my life. I finally had it though, a few months into this.
The ideal routine that I thought, at least, that productivity dreams are made of, I woke up at 5:30 to make a coffee. At 6:00, I walked over to the gym, I planned out my daily intentions while I was working out, then I made a healthy breakfast, I meditated, I showered, I connected to the internet ’cause I disconnect from the internet between 8:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. every day. I did that during the project, I still do. I read and then I started working at nine and I felt so productive because I got so much done before the rest of the world woke up, but I quickly realized that I absolutely hated the ritual. I had to go to sleep when my friends and my girlfriend wanted to hang out. I had to go to sleep when I was on a roll because I was so productive late at night and because I needed to wake up at 5:30 and didn’t want to compromise on sleep, which would’ve been worse. I realized that I absolutely hated the ritual because I simply have more energy later on in the day.
That led me to a lot of research where there’s no difference in somebody’s socioeconomic standing depending on what time they wake up at. It’s what we do with the hours of our day that make the difference in our productivity. You can think about it logically because if you have one person that wakes up at 5:30 and does their routine, then you have somebody that wakes up at 9:00 a.m. and does their daily routine and the routines are the same, they’re gonna be just as productive, but what does change over the course of the day is how much energy we have and how much energy we have to bring to our work and to our life.
I think we’ve got to structure our day around that rather than … This goes to the idea of knowing why we want to make a change that we were chatting about earlier. I was in love with this sepia-toned fantasy of being this early riser who was ultra productive and woke up early every single day. I finally had it and I realized that because of the way I’m wired and because of the fact that this change wasn’t that important to me, it really was a waste of time. Not all productivity advice will work for you.
This is one of the other things that I found in the project when I was kind of separating the advice that worked from the advice that doesn’t is whenever anybody’s doling out blanket productivity advice, you should question that advice because there’s a lot of people who want to promote their book or their system so that they can get speaking gigs and consulting and stuff like that. You should always question advice that’s this blanket advice where somebody seems like they have everything figured out because it’s really not what productivity tactics are the best, even though some work better than others for most people, it’s what productivity tactics are the best for you.
This is true for batching email. If you think that doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. Figure out a different way to shift your focus between email and other elements of your work less. If you think waking up early won’t work for you, don’t do it. If you think a maintenance day or a maintenance half day won’t work for you and you love that feeling of maintaining these elements of your life throughout the day, don’t do it. That speaks to the idea that productivity isn’t about how much we produce, it’s about how much we accomplish. The best productivity advice out there will be self-reinforcing in that we’ll do it and then we’ll feel so good because doing so allows us to accomplish that much more that we’ll keep going with it, but we really have to figure out the stuff that works for us and leave the rest.
Brett McKay: Right. I was thinking people need to keep in mind that what works for you at one time might not work for you in another time.
Chris Bailey: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I’ve noticed that the way I manage my day has changed since when I was not married, to when I was in college, to when I had kids. It’s changed because the circumstances change and so you have to adapt to that. I remember I tried really hard to keep doing the way that I used to do things before I had kids and that doesn’t work. So I’ve had to adjust and that’s worked out for me.
Chris Bailey: That’s the thing. Productivity is so often a process of understanding our constraints. So yeah, exactly. As the conditions of our life change, the tactics will change that work for us. Waking up early is a good example of that. We’ll stay wired the same way, but once we have kids, we might find that waking up at 5:30 every morning, even though it’s kind of a struggle to get in bed at a reasonable hour, we might find that those hours are the most serene and that we’re able to write during them, and that we’re able to have some time for ourself and charge up before the day starts. I’m with you.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about managing attention because that’s an important part. You can manage your time, have things scheduled down to a T, you can be working your prime time hours, but if you’re not focused on your work, that’s all for nought. So let’s talk about the thing that trained us to be unfocused monkeys, basically, is the internet. The internet just sucks productivity out and I think we talked about it earlier. You need to take a break. I’ll just check Reddit for a bit or I’ll check Twitter, and then an hour later, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, what just happened?” Then you try to get focused on your work but you want to keep checking your email. So what can we do to get a handle on our internet-driven distraction?
Chris Bailey: The research shows, and this was a study done by, I believe, Tim Pychyl of Carleton University in Ottawa. He found that of the time we spend on the internet, we spend 47% of our time procrastinating. So what that means is things quite literally take twice as long when we’re connected to the internet while we’re doing them, which is a ridiculous amount of time to waste. If you want to get, in other words, eight hours of work done in four hours, just disconnect from the internet because it’ll allow you to be distracted so much less.
I think the answer comes down to dealing with the distractions that derail our productivity ahead of time for the simple fact that we’re most productive when we work towards our goals in the moment. The distractions, especially those that reside on the internet, the ones that are the most distracting are such because they’re more attractive than our work in the moment. Going on Facebook or Reddit will always be a sexier task that we want to do more than the actual real work that’s in front of us.
So making a plan to deal with these distractions, whether you find you’re interrupted by email, or Reddit, or Twitter, or Facebook, whatever the hell you’re distracted by, making a plan to deal with these ahead of time before they come up and before you’re tempted to fall into a black hole of them is the way out. I’ve been thinking about this idea recently too, and I think that distractions and interruptions that derail our productivity can be separated by two factors. The first is whether or not we have control over them and the second is whether they’re annoying or whether they’re welcome or a fun reprieve from our work.
If you, in your head, close your eyes, not if you’re driving or at the gym or in public ’cause it might look kind of weird, if you draw a two by two grid in your head and on the left side is whether or not you have control over these things and on top is whether they’re annoying or whether they’re fun, the ones you can’t control, you can’t prevent them from arising because you can’t control over them. Whether they’re fun ones like a call from your loved ones while you’re working or your team coming by your office to say, “Hey, man. You want to grab lunch? It’s on me,” those are welcome distractions or ones that are unwelcome like phone calls or meetings you can’t avoid. You can’t deal with these ahead of time, but you can deal with how you relate to them as they come up.
So you can welcome the ones that are fun and try to get back on track as quickly as you possibly can for the ones that are unwelcome, but for the ones that you can control like email alerts … One of the worst productivity detractors are email alerts because we’re constantly bombarded by them and every single time we get one, our focus is interrupted, email alerts, social media alerts, notifications of most kinds. My cell phone never buzzes, it never beeps. I check my notifications whenever I check my text messages or whenever I check the time because my phone happens to be my pocket watch. That’s when I deal with the interruptions that come in. It’s kind of a natural break in the day.
You can leave your phone at home if you find that you’re wasting a lot of time on it or that you’re only skimming the surface of your work when you’re on your phone, which is often the case for a lot of people. You can disable a lot of the notifications that you receive ahead of time or download an app like SelfControl for the Mac. There are ones for Windows too where you can create a list of sites that you don’t want to visit when you’re in your peak productivity hours. Maybe enable these apps during your biological prime time.
Again, the advice will work differently depending on the person, but this is a truth that’s universal. Distractions derail our productivity because in the moment, we would rather be doing them than our actual work. So dealing with them ahead of time, they’re infinitely easier to deal with ahead of time than they are to deal with as they come up because we can’t get away from them. They’re more fun. So I think that’s the best answer, is first of all, figure out whether you have control over it or not and change how you relate to it if you don’t, and if you do have control, make a plan to change it for the next time.
Brett McKay: Awesome. So let’s say you’re doing that. You’ve put in the checks so you don’t check the internet when you shouldn’t be, but you’re getting to work and you find yourself, “Man, I just can’t focus. The internet has trained my brain to be constantly distracted.” What can we do to retrain our ability to focus on a task deeply?
Chris Bailey: I think it comes down to the idea of to continue stumbling and to get back up. Maybe more than that, to try these tactics while being aware of … There’s another firetruck. Man, this day, it’s a crazy day here. Again, that was in that quadrant. I had no control over that, so I had to change how I related to that distraction that derailed my focus just there.
That’s the thing about the internet, is it’s so stimulating that it’s hard to separate away from that. Sometimes I find the best answer is to disconnect entirely. That might sound drastic, but when you consider the idea that we spend 47% of our time on the internet procrastinating, it can often be worth it, especially when we’re doing tasks that are reversive. So when we find ourselves doing a task that flips those procrastination triggers, it’s boring, it’s frustrating, it’s difficult, it’s ambiguous, it’s unstructured, we procrastinate the most when a task is like that. We should get rid of the alternatives that are more or less aversive than that.
As a good example, I wrote most of my book while being disconnected from the internet. My publisher gave me 35 or 40 weeks, but I ended up writing the book in 24 weeks because I was disconnected from the internet for most of it, even though it was pretty research heavy. I don’t have a journalism degree or anything like that. I’m just naturally curious about this stuff. I have a business degree and so I’m not a writer by trade, and I find writing to be a fun process and a meaningful process, but it’s a tedious process in practice and I procrastinate on it more than any other task in my work. When I disconnect from the internet, and I so often leave my phone at home when I go to my favorite coffee shop here and have my rosemary almond milk latte, which I drink with one pinky in the air, and I write best in those conditions because the distractions simply aren’t there. My computer, the wifi on it is off, my phone is at home so I’m not attracted by that more, frankly, attractive alternative than the actual work that I ought to be doing.
So eliminating these distractions ahead of time or cutting yourself off entirely when you have the flexibility to do so is crucial. Even if you work in an office type environment where you don’t have a lot of control over your work, if you have the flexibility to attend an important meeting and not be available or connected for an hour during that time, you have the flexibility to disconnect from the internet for an hour or two.
Brett McKay: Very cool. Hey Chris, this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about your book and your work?
Chris Bailey: Yeah, it was fun. My book is called The Productivity Project. We’re translating it into, I think, seven languages by now, but you walk into any bookstore or metaphorically walk into an audiobook store. I narrate it, so if you like the sound of my voice, you can get it there. If you don’t like the sound of my voice, the physical copy or the e-copy is the place to go for that. It’s called The Productivity Project and my website is alifeofproductivity.com. You can find on that website all the experiments that I’ve conducted and all the articles from The Productivity Project. I’m continuing to post an article every Monday while I do stuff like speak and consulting. I love writing more than anything. Even though it’s an aversive task and I procrastinate on it, even when not many distractions are around, it’s so meaningful and I love sharing ideas that way too.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Chris Bailey, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Chris Bailey: Thanks so much for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Chris Bailey. He’s the author of the book, Productivity Project. You can find it on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about Chris’s work at alifeofproductivity.com. You can see some of the metrics that he uses to measure some of his productivity there. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/productivityproject where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. Our show is edited by Creative Audio Lab here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you have any audio editing needs or audio production needs, check them out at creativeaudiolab.com. As always, we appreciate your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 18, 2017