Review | The Productivity Project, Chris Bailey

25733994Many of us have likely been there: we have too much to do and not enough time to do it all. Every New Year, there is a new slate of books promising to help us improve our productivity and learn to get more done in a limited amount of time. Author Chris Bailey geeks out over productivity, and dedicated an entire year of his life in testing out various productivity techniques in order to weed out the useless ones and find the nuggets of gold. The result is The Productivity Project.

The book is full of useful tips, such as the following:

  1. Find out your personal periods of peak performance and schedule your tasks accordingly. For example, the standard work day may be from 9 – 5, but if you find you work best between 10 – 12 and 3 – 5, then schedule your most important work for those hours.
  2. Set aside a Maintenance Day. Rather than try to do chores like groceries and laundry intermittently throughout the week, push off all that you can until a Maintenance Day, when you can tackle them all at once. This will free up your concentration during the rest of the week to focus on more important things.
  3. Externalize your work by making notes on all the things you have to do in both your professional and personal lives. In this, Bailey imagines the brain much like Sherlock Holmes’ mind palace and the tasks we need to accomplish as clutter that needs to be put away for us to focus. By writing our entire to-do list down, we eliminate the need to think and worry about it, and can then focus on actually getting things done.

All of this and more are very useful techniques, and Bailey has a very practical, straightforward style that makes this book an easy read. I also appreciate the estimated reading time at the beginning of each chapter, as well as how he ends each chapter with a suggested exercise, including estimated usefulness, degree of difficulty and time commitment. Both his tone and the way the chapters are set up convey a respect for the limitations on his readers’ time, and helps us break up the reading into manageable chunks throughout our week.

One concern I had, I suppose, is that I didn’t really feel like I learned much that is new. In contrast to another book on productivity I read recently, Brian Tracy’s Eat that Frog!, which I found so useful that I actually noted my key takeaways from that book on Post-its in my workspace, I’m not sure what, if anything, so struck me when reading this book that I would post it at my desk.

I also found the book to be vague when it comes to explaining some of the techniques and more importantly, how exactly Bailey measured his success. Partly this may be because he was being productive about researching productivity, so I suppose the book itself is a measure of success. But, for example, in the chapter on procrastination, Bailey experiments with techniques to not procrastinate, and then compares his “before and after” time breakdown:

(BEFORE)

  • 19 hours on reading and research
  • 16.5 hours writing
  • 4 hours conducting and participating in interviews
  • 8.5 hours doing maintenance-type tasks
  • 6 hours procrastinating (page 56)

(AFTER)

  • 17.5 hours reading and research
  • 15 hours writing
  • 5.5 hours conducting and participating in interviews
  • 2.5 hours doing maintenance-type tasks
  • 1 hour procrastinating (page 67)

Here’s the thing: he never explains where those extra five hours go. The time spent on most of the other tasks also decreased, so it’s not like giving up the five hours of procrastination gave him more energy to work more on various tasks. It’s possible that not procrastinating meant he was able to get more done in a shorter amount of time, and the extra five hours from procrastinating and extra nine or so hours from other tasks went to having fun instead. But as it is, I don’t know how this time tracking comparison proves that not procrastinating makes you more productive.

I also don’t quite understand how Bailey defines or measures productivity. Partly, it’s because his project is so meta — he’s being productive in researching and writing about productivity, so unless he provides his entire resume and bibliography, this book is the single quantifiable marker of his productivity. But also because he simply asserts that he is more productive, without quite explaining what he means by that.

For example, in the chapter on productivity peak periods, he tells us he’s discovered that he is most productive at two particular periods in the day. How does he know that? Did he measure how many pages he was able to write per hour? Did he have an external consultant rate the quality of his work on an hourly basis? Or is it simply a generic feeling of when he felt most productive? Which I must clarify is nothing to sneeze at; we all know the feeling of being “in the zone.” But again, I wish Bailey made this clearer, so I wouldn’t have to infer it myself.

Overall, it’s not a bad book, and Bailey does have some good advice for being productive. This book also provided a pleasant distraction from my morning and afternoon commutes, as I ended up reading most of it on the subway.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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