When I first email Chris Bailey, the man behind popular productivity blog A Life of Productivity, to set up an interview, I am greeted with an auto-reply that reads, “As I hunker down on a few important projects, I’m only checking my email once a day, at 3 p.m. EST.”
It’s the first indicator that I’m dealing with a productivity mastermind.
The 26-year-old Ottawa native graduated from college with two full-time job offers, but he turned both down to throw himself into research on a topic he’d been obsessed with since he was a young teen: making work better, more fulfilling, and more fun.
To do so, he used himself as an experimental playground, testing old and new productivity theories by doing things like watching 296 TED talks in one week, and secluding himself completely for 10 days. He’s compiled these experiments, and the insights he learned from them, into a new book called The Productivity Project.
“Productivity can be so boring, or it can be scary,” Bailey says. “But it doesn’t have to be either. It’s a process of understanding your constraints.” Here are some mistakes you may be making that are keeping you from getting the most out of your workday:
Just like doing a juice cleanse to jumpstart weight loss, using a new productivity hack or a new organizational app feels good for a little while–before you realize it simply isn’t sustainable, or even that much fun. Bailey found this out firsthand during his research by spending a few days as an early riser.
“People have a sepia-toned fantasy in their mind of being this person that wakes up early and gets an insane amount of work done every day,” Bailey says. But that may not be what works for you. He discovered that when he woke up early, he actually got less done than when he maximized his evenings for work. In his book, he stresses the importance of figuring out your Biological Prime Time, the time of day when you have the most energy, which for Bailey was between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Working earlier wasn’t helping him work smarter, but working later was.
And if your smartphone is stocked with productivity apps but you aren’t seeing any changes, consider picking just one or two you’ll actually use. Bailey suggests the aptly named SimpleNote, a plain cloud interface where he jots down ideas, tasks, and products. “People focus too much on apps,” he says. “You get this divide between feeling like you’ve accomplished something and actually accomplishing something.”
If you’re reading this article, it’s a good sign you’re ready to start making changes in your work life. But if this is the 20th article on productivity you’ve read today, it’s time to take a step back and reassess your priorities.
In The Productivity Project, Bailey warns of becoming too into the concept of making work better, and not enough into, well, the actual work itself. He suggests thinking of it in economic terms like, “How much time am I making back on this time investment?”
Plus, in addition to being a time suck, obsessively looking up different tactics and tricks makes productivity feel complicated, so you’re less likely to stick to what you learn. As Bailey says, “Intricate systems make it difficult to care about the actual work you’re doing.”
For one of his experiments, Bailey alternated working a 90-hour week with working a 20-hour week. The result? When working 70 more hours, he felt busier and more productive, but he only accomplished slightly more than he did during the short weeks.
The difference was not in hours worked or effort spent, he says. It was in attention and energy. And yes, that means taking a few minutes each day to make note of all your tasks and prioritize what you actually want to get done (and how much time it will take do it).
“That’s all productivity is in my opinion–it’s not how busy you are, it’s not how frantically you work,” Bailey says. “It’s about how deliberate you are. It’s not how much you produce, but how much you accomplish.”
Bailey centers The Productivity Project on one foundational principle: knowing yourself. He suggests a time challenge, where you track your energy levels and what you accomplish over a week or two. Then, look at the data to figure out what times of day you’re doing your best work. If you’re coming up with great ideas after lunch, don’t use that time to check email or catch up on the news.
“It’s a fun process to get to know your daily rhythms, to learn how to get more energy over the day and how to focus,” Bailey says. “It’s not fun if you’re trying to do more, more, more, faster, faster, faster. You should take a step back to work on the right things, deliberately and with intention.”
Managers, that goes for you, too. If you want to get the most out of your employees, talk to them about when they feel most energized and creative–and then be open to flexible work schedules. “If you have employees who are mostly energized in the evening, you’re not getting the most out of them during the 9-to-5 workday,” Bailey says. “Then they’re starting a company in the evening, because that’s when they have the most energy.”
And as you get to know yourself and your habits, Bailey says, remember to be generous with yourself when you have off days. “It’s so easy to be hard on yourself,” Bailey says. “But only a robot perfectly achieves everything they intend to. If you’re human, there’s always a gap between what you intend to accomplish and what you actually accomplish. That gap is what productivity in its best form is designed to bridge.”