The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey: Summary and Lessons

the productivity project book summary

“When someone says they “don’t have time” for something, what they’re really saying is that a task isn’t as important or attractive as whatever else they have on their plate.”

Rating: 7/10

Related: HyperfocusFree to FocusThe Effective Executive, Deep Work

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The Productivity Project Short Summary

In The Productivity Project, Chris Bailey covers the best productivity tactics to get things done. Over the course of a year, Chris tested lots of tactics and condensed the list to the top 25. These will help you better manage your time, attention, and energy.

The Productivity Project Summary

Productivity has nothing to do with how much you do, and everything to do with how much you accomplish.

The 3 ingredients of productivity are time, attention, and energy.

the productivity project 3 ingredients

When we waste time, we’re procrastinating. When we can’t manage our attention well, we’re distracted. And when we don’t cultivate our energy levels, we’re tired, or “burned out.”

Laying the Groundwork

It’s important to deeply care about why you want to become more productive:

  • What deep-rooted values are associated with your productivity goals?
  • Why do you want to become more productive?
  • Fill in this blank with each change you want to make: “I deeply care about this because .”
  • Fast-forward to when you’re on your deathbed. Ask yourself: Would I regret doing more or less of this?

The 80-20 rule: a very small number of tasks lead to the majority of what you accomplish

Productivity isn’t about doing more things—it’s about doing the right things.

How to identify your highest-impact tasks (based on “Eat That Frog“):

  1. Make a list of everything you’re responsible for in your work
  2. Now, ask yourself: “If you could just do one item on that list all day, every day, what item would you do that would allow you to accomplish the most with the same amount of time?”
  3. Finally, ask yourself: “If you could do only two more items on that list all day, what second and third tasks let you accomplish the most in the same amount of time?”

The Rule of 3: at the beginning of each day, before you start working, decide what three things you want to accomplish by the end of the day. Do the same at the start of every week.

Work on your highest-impact tasks during your Biological Prime Time (BPT)—when you are able to bring the most energy and focus to them.

Keep a time log to be aware of how you’re already spending your time, so you can make adjustments.

Wasting Time

The 6 triggers of procrastination:

  • Boring
  • Frustrating
  • Difficult
  • Unstructured or ambiguous
  • Lacking in personal meaning
  • Lacking in intrinsic rewards (i.e., it’s not fun or engaging)

The more of these attributes a task has, and the more intense these attributes are, the less attractive a task will be to you, and the more likely you’ll procrastinate on it.

How to regain control and work on your most aversive tasks:

  • Make a plan to change the triggers. For example: change your location, set a timer, do more research, or make a detailed plan
  • Create a procrastination list. Give yourself a choice between working on the task that you’re tempted to procrastinate on or another task that’s high return
  • List the costs of putting something off
  • Just get started. Here are 7 simple ways to just get started

The more you see your “future self” (you, only in the future) as a stranger, the more likely you are to give your future self the same workload that you would give a stranger, and put things off to tomorrow.

To get in touch with your future self:

  • Send a letter to your future self (with
  • Create a future memory. Simply imagining a better, more productive version of yourself down the line has been shown to be enough to motivate you to act in ways that are helpful for your future self

To prevent the internet from wasting your time, disconnect from it when working on a high-impact or ugly task. Also, disconnect as much as possible throughout the day. This prevents you from being tempted to work on lower-impact tasks that live on the internet.

The End of Time Management

In the knowledge economy, if you want to become more productive, managing your time should take a backseat to how you manage your energy and attention.

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.

By controlling how much time you spend on a task, you control how much energy and attention you spend on it.

For important things, spend less time. Shrink how long you’ll work on a task is also a great way to warm up to difficult tasks that you are more likely to procrastinate on.

Maintenance Days: gathering your maintenance tasks together and tackling them all at once.

Lumping together your maintenance tasks—whether on a Maintenance Day or with a maintenance list—helps you eliminate spending too much time on them. And it gives you fewer lower-return tasks to waste time on throughout the week, which gives you the time to focus on what’s actually important.

The Zen of Productivity

Answering email, attending meetings, and keeping up with social media are the “maintenance tasks” of work. Every single support task can be shrunk, delegated, or perhaps eliminated entirely.

Shrink tasks by setting limits, both for how much time you spend on the task, and for how often you focus on the task:

  • Email: turn off my email alerts; only check emails at a few specific times (in the morning, before lunch, and at the end of the day); force yourself to wait before responding; schedule just three thirty-minute chunks of time every day to deal with email; make every email five sentences or less
  • Social Media: limit yourself to checking social media five times a day
  • Tasks: group similar tasks together so you can focus on them less frequently (e.g., by making all my phone calls at once). This is called batching
  • Meetings: limit yourself to attending four hours of meetings a week
  • Coworkers: wear headphones when working on critical tasks; avoiding gossip; finding another place to take a break besides in your office; ask the person interrupting you to help out with your work; close your office door during your BPT

For every low-impact task, project, and commitment you say no to, you say yes to working on your most valuable tasks.

Low-impact tasks are prime candidates to be delegated to other people.

The 90% rule: when you look at a new opportunity, rank it on a scale of 1-100 on how valuable or meaningful you think it is. If it isn’t a 90 or above, don’t do it.

The most productive people take the time to not only understand what’s important, but also to simplify everything else.

Quiet Your Mind

To free up mental space and get organized, perform a “brain dump”. Externalize your tasks by writing them down.

As thoughts come to mind throughout the day, write them down in a notes app. Review them on a regular basis and add them to your to-do list or calendar.

A “Waiting For” List: a list of everything you’re waiting on. Review on a regular basis to make sure nothing slips through the cracks

A Worry List: a list of everything you worry about. Schedule an hour every day to think through everything on the list

Do a weekly review of your tasks and accomplishments. This gives you a better perspective on your wins and the areas you need to improve and more control over your life.

Weekly review prompts:

  • What do I need to spend more time on next week?
  • What did I spend too much time on last week?
  • What do I need to schedule or do next week?
  • What do I have to be mindful of next week?
  • What obstacles will get in the way of my goals next week?
  • Am I going in the right direction with all my commitments?
  • Are there any commitments I need to add or remove? Expand or shrink?
  • What did I knock out of the park last week?

The mind capture ritual: sit somewhere without distractions with a pen and notepad. Set a timer for fifteen minutes. Capture your thoughts as they come.

The Attention Muscle

Keep a notepad by your desk and make a note of every distraction or interruption that pops up and tempts you to interrupt what you are working on. Then get back to work. And if you need to, deal with the would-be interruptions after.

The “20 Second Rule”: twenty seconds is enough temporal distance (friction) to keep distractions at bay. For example: set up a complicated, thirty-character password on your social media accounts

Single-task to tame your wandering mind and build up your “attention muscle”.

The brain is not built to multitask. It can’t focus on two things at the same time. Instead, it rapidly switches between tasks, creating the illusion that you’re doing more than one thing at a time.

To practice single-tasking, work on Pomodoro Time. When doing other activities—meetings, listening, reading, eating—notice when your mind begins to wander. Then rein it back in to perform another rep of your attention muscle

Mindfulness is the art of deliberately doing one thing at a time. And meditation is much the same, only instead of doing it alongside other tasks, you practice it by itself.

How to meditate:

  • Sit upright in a quiet place
  • Set a timer. Choose an amount of time you don’t feel a ton of mental resistance to
  • Focus on your breath. Don’t try to control it; simply observe it
  • When your attention wanders to focus on something else, bring your attention back to concentrate on your breath

Taking Productivity to the Next Level

Food rules for productivity:

  • Eat more unprocessed foods that take longer to digest
  • Drink fewer alcoholic and sugary drinks and more water
  • Drink caffeine strategically
  • Find a better caffeine delivery system, like green tea or matcha

Exercising provides a great amount of energy and focus in return for your time. Integrate an exercise routine into your life.

Any amount of sleep you lose below the amount your body requires is not worth the productivity cost.

The key to getting enough sleep is to control what time you go to bed.

Create a nighttime ritual:

  • Expose yourself to less blue light. Shut off your electronics two to three hours before bed. Use apps to blast less blue light at you
  • Expose yourself to more natural light during the day
  • Take naps if needed
  • Stop drinking caffeine eight to fourteen hours before you sleep
  • Think of your bedroom as a cave. It should be cool, quiet, and dark

How to be kind to yourself:

  • Disconnect from productivity more often
  • Recall three things you’re grateful for
  • Journal about a positive experience you had
  • Break tasks down
  • Ask yourself for advice
  • Reward yourself
  • Know You Can Grow
  • Create an Accomplishments List