A Yearlong Quest for Productivity Proves What Works – and What Doesn’t

a yearlong quest for productivity proves what works and what doesn't

a yearlong quest for productivity proves what works and what doesn't

There is a lot of advice these days about how to be more productive, such as getting up earlier to start your day, meditating, cutting out sweets and caffeine and dumping your smartphone.

But do any of these strategies really work?

Chris Bailey decided to find out. After graduating from college and receiving two full-time job offers, he instead opted to spend a year trying out various productivity advice to see what worked.

His conclusion: Much of the productivity advice out there is bunk.

“I interviewed a lot of so-called productivity gurus, but most really aren’t,” he says.

In his new book chronicling his project, Bailey says he found some of the most helpful advice came from successful executives.

“What I discovered is that these people are the most deliberate about what they do. Even on a moment-to-moment basis,” he says. “They don’t work faster or longer – they’re just really focused on what is important.”

He also discovered that many people confuse “busyness” – such an dealing with emails – with  productivity. “When busyness doesn’t lead you to accomplish anything, then that’s laziness,” he says.

So what other habits or strategies don’t lead to productivity? Among the experiments Bailey tried:

  • Working more, sleeping less. For every hour of sleep you give up, you lose at least two hours of productivity.
  • Giving up caffeine. When you drink caffeine habitually, your productivity eventually flatlines after your body adapts to how much caffeine you consume. But when you don’t give it up completely and drink it strategically, your productivity jumps because you benefit from bringing more energy and attention to the task.
  • Living in isolation for 10 days. Bailey says this is the experiment he learned from the most because he came to realize that “without people around me, my motivation to get work done plummeted.” Without social connections, research has shown workers are less happy, engaged and driven to accomplish more at work.
  • Working longer hours. While working 90-hour weeks, Bailey discovered that he accomplished “only a bit more” than when he worked 20-hour weeks. “When you work consistently long hours, or spend too much time on tasks, that’s usually not a sign that you have too much to do – it’s a sign that you’re not spending your energy and attention wisely.”
  • Starting work at 5:30 a.m. Bailey – a self-professed night owl – found that he was groggy the first two hours of his day and got tired of missing out on time with friends because he had to go to bed early. Research shows there is “absolutely no difference in socioeconomic standing between someone who is an early riser and someone who is a night owl – we are all wired differently, and one routine is not inherently better than another.”

On the other hand, Bailey found there were several productivity tips that were valuable:

  • Meditation. “With the work we do today, it is beneficial to bring all the focus we can to it,” Bailey says. “And studies show that the more mindful a manager is, the better the team performs.”
  • Using a smartphone for only one hour a day. This was Bailey’s first experiment and lasted for three months. While the initial adjustment was a bit tough, Bailey says he “got accustomed to how peaceful I felt when I disconnected.” He acknowledges that the Internet is fun and exciting, but because it is so immediately rewarding it is also a recipe for addiction and procrastination. He suggests the best way to use the Internet is to disconnect as much as possible throughout the day, especially when working on a “high-impact or ugly task.”
  • Determining the highest impact tasks. Bailey says this is the most critical challenge that will make you most productive. It starts by making a list of everything you’re responsible for in your work, and then determining on that list what is most important to you and to your boss. Then, you determine if you could do only two more items, what would they be? These are the tasks that should be given the most time, energy and attention.
  • Using the Rule of 3. At the beginning of each day, think about the three things you want to have accomplished by the end of the day and by the end of the week. Those are the areas on which you should focus.
  • Working in prime time. Instead of trying to manage your time better, think about when you have the most energy and focus and use that period to work on important tasks. This “biological prime time” can be different for everyone, but Bailey says he is the most energized at night and that’s when he works on his most important tasks. If you’re in an office, try blocking out your most focused time, such as 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., and avoid scheduling anything else during that time. If you’re like Bailey, you may want to start working on projects at night. 

“Productivity isn’t about how much you produce, but how much you contribute,” Bailey says. “Again, you have to be deliberate in what you do.”

Finally, Bailey cautions that social media can be a huge productivity drain. That’s why he urges everyone to carefully track how much time they spend on social media sites and avoid notifications on your phone or computer since “they are the black hole of productivity.”

“Even though you think you don’t spend a lot of time on social media, it takes a disproportionate amount of your focus. It prevents you from using your time and attention on things that matter,” he says. “You’re filling gaps in your time with social media instead of solving problems.”

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