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The Productivity Project

By Chris Bailey

(Random House Canada, 292 pages, $32)

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Don't worry about procrastinating. Everyone does it. The more important and challenging the task in front of you, the more likely you'll procrastinate. So if you focus on your important and challenging tasks – as you should – procrastination might increase.

That's one of the lessons Chris Bailey shares in The Productivity Project, a summary of the year he spent testing most of the productivity ideas recommended by gurus in order to see their actual impact. Fascinated with productivity, he spurned two solid job offers after graduating from the University of Ottawa in order to follow his heart, researching the topic, blogging, and helping others with this essential issue.

He carefully charted his productivity, and after one experiment – watching 296 TED talks in a week – he found himself interviewed for that organization's website, which labelled him perhaps the most productive person you would ever hope to meet. But that same week, he recorded six hours of procrastination, albeit at a time he accomplished a ton of work and felt superenergetic.

"The more aversive (unattractive) a task or project is to you, the more likely you are to put it off," he writes.

That's more likely to happen if the task can be described in one or more of the following ways: Boring, frustrating, difficult, unstructured or ambiguous, lacking in personal meaning, or lacking in intrinsic rewards – not fun or engaging. Doing your taxes probably hits the procrastination jackpot, by the way, falling into each of those categories. Netflix, he notes, lacks any of those procrastination triggers, so it's easy to do.

"The biggest reason your highest-impact tasks are so valuable is that they too are aversive; they almost always require more time, attention and energy than your lower-impact tasks, and they're usually more boring, frustrating, difficult, unstructured, and lacking in intrinsic rewards," he notes.

Essentially, our prefrontal cortex, the logical part of our brain that tries to urge us to meet our goals, is generally at war with the limbic system, the instinctual, emotional part, which prefers Netflix. Many of his productivity improvements involved helping the prefrontal cortex to win more frequently. For challenging tasks at work – or personal taxes – you have to figure out ways to overcome the six barriers, such as following his lead and doing his taxes in his favourite café and setting aside a $2.50 reward for every 15 minutes spent at the chore.

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He also established a procrastination list, to keep track of what he is putting off, and when struck tries to find another high-value task to substitute. He writes down the costs of not doing the challenging task, which seems to fire up his prefrontal cortex, and tries to just get started.

He stressed that's not like Nike's "Just Do It!" approach, which is too daunting. He just starts, pledging to work for a few minutes, but often carries on once he's got some momentum. Understanding procrastination led him to cut it down to about one hour a week.

He recommends starting the day by listing three significant tasks that you know at the end of the day you will want to have accomplished. You'll achieve those by managing your time, energy, and attention – the latter two the most important since working on key activities when your energy peaks and you can focus single-mindedly on the task bears fruit. Indeed, when he alternated between working a 90-hour week and a 20-hour week, he found the actual productivity not much different, because he could amp up his energy and attention for those 20 hours. Interestingly, however, he felt twice as productive working those longer weeks, even if he wasn't.

For important tasks, he suggests allocating less time. That artificial deadline will create urgency, energy and focus. And like him, try to determine what the sweet spot of productivity is – understand at what point you stop being effective.

He urges you to capture stray ideas on lists, as first suggested by productivity guru David Allen, to free your mind from distractions. He keeps a list of what he is waiting for from others, lists of project notes on anything complicated that will be repeated, and a worrying list, to take those issues off his mind.

To curb your e-mail compulsion, he recommends burying your e-mail start button in a series of nested folders on your computer – rather than keeping it easy to reach on your taskbar – so it will take 20 seconds to access. Creative ideas often come in the shower rather than at work because your mind can wander, so he advises taking 15 minutes a day where you sit with a pen and paper (and timer) and just led the mind drift – if that's too formulaic, take nature walks and visit art galleries.

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Much has been written on productivity and he tackles the familiar topics, often giving similar advice, but because of his personal experiences, the book has a special appeal and some idiosyncratic suggestions. Although it's about his personal odyssey, it's really about you – and how you can accomplish more and be happier each day.

Postscript

The year has started with a productivity bang, at least in books: As well as Chris Bailey's The Productivity Project, we have had books by better known Cal Newport, Deep Work, and best-selling author Charles Duhigg's Smarter Faster Better. All are excellent, but I would rate Mr. Bailey's the best if you had to read just one, Prof. Newport's next (and for those who want a deeper look at the topic of work-flow-distraction, perhaps the best), and Mr. Duhigg's third, although still worth your time if you have a surplus, given all the advice gleaned from the other books. And here's one more I suspect I won't read as I focus on other topics: How to Be a Productivity Ninja, by productivity speaker Graham Allcott.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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