Boost Your Productivity: A Q&A with Chris Bailey

What Chris Bailey’s productivity experiments taught him about working smarter.

By Joan Mooney Jul 1, 2016
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At age 24, Chris Bailey had a university degree in business and two job offers. But he turned them down to spend a year focusing on his passion—how to become more productive. To do that, he conducted a series of experiments on a lone research subject: himself. Among the productivity approaches he tested were living in total isolation for 10 days, limiting his smartphone use to an hour a day, and alternating 90-hour workweeks with 20-hour ones. In The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy (Crown Business, 2016), Bailey shares what he learned and gives an ovChris Baileyerview below.​

How can people be more productive?

Work with more deliberateness, more intention. So often, especially when we have more to do than we have time to do it in, we operate on autopilot and in response to whatever comes our way. Step back and think about what’s important and work on that.

Did your project change your perceptions?

Previously, I thought the path to productivity was to work faster and to do more, more, more. But it’s really about doing the right things. On a weekly, daily or even an hourly basis, think about what you should be investing your time in.

Everything I experimented with and learned fell into one of three categories: time, energy or attention. Time is the one thing we can’t change, so we need good strategies for cultivating focus and energy to maximize the time we have.

One of the experiments I did—and one that anyone can try—was to chart how much energy I had at every waking hour on a scale of 1 to 10. During that time, I cut out caffeine and alcohol; ate small, frequent meals; and got enough sleep so that I could get a good gauge of my natural energy levels. I learned that I had more energy between 10 a.m. and noon and from 5 to 8 p.m. So I schedule my most important work at those hours. It’s my biological prime time, depending on my circadian rhythms.

Why do you say time management is secondary to other concerns?

It doesn’t matter what we choose to spend our time on if we don’t focus on it or if we’re so burned out that it takes an hour to check e-mail. Our energy is a roller coaster over the course of the day, but there’s a consistency with how it fluctuates. If you’re a morning bird, you have more energy early in the day. For a night owl, it’s the opposite. By learning what these patterns are, you can schedule your high-impact tasks for peak times.

Why do you say that working longer hours isn’t efficient? What’s a better alternative?

It may be better to schedule a smaller amount of time to get your tasks done. In one of my experiments, for a month I worked 90 hours one week, then 20 hours the next. I wanted to see what impact the different time frames would have on how much I got done. I felt more productive during the longer workweek, but I accomplished only a bit more because my work extended to fit how much time I had. Having just 20 hours forced me to expend more energy during that period and then to step back and think strategically about what I had to do.

What is the “Rule of 3” and why is it important?

It’s one of my favorite ways to work more intentionally. At the start of each day, ask yourself, “By the time today is done, what three main things do I want to accomplish?” I like to do the same at the start of each week. The rule is almost stupidly simple, but I think that’s what makes it so powerful. When you pick only three things, you have to decide what’s important and also what isn’t.

Why is meditation important for productivity?

The research is conclusive: Meditation allows us to bring more attention to what’s in front of us. If you bring twice as much concentration to a task, you’re going to be twice as productive in performing it. I know several high-performing executives who meditate in order to ignore distractions and to regain focus if they lose it. It gives us the space to think about what we’re doing. When we have a calmer mind, we can think on the fly about what’s important.

You write that 37 percent of the average office worker’s time is spent in meetings. How can people get more out of them?

Start by requesting an agenda for any meeting scheduled without one, since having that framework helps speed the proceedings. When the person requesting the meeting is asked to come up with an agenda, he or she often finds that the problem could be easily solved with an e-mail. Meetings also cost more than people think. If you have eight employees together for one hour, that’s a day’s work lost. Shrinking [meetings] makes them more productive and harnesses manpower.

What’s the biggest obstacle to becoming more productive?

Frequent interruptions. Every time we’re disturbed, we can lose as much as 25 minutes of productivity. Some distractions walk into our office, and there is not much we can do about those. But there are many that stem from the Internet—e-mail notifications, instant messages. Not many of these are worth losing 25 minutes. It’s crucial to deal with them ahead of time by turning off notifications. It’s easy to underestimate their cost because we’re still busy doing work when we stop writing a report to look at our messages. People check their e-mail much more frequently than they have to—30, 40 times a day. Each time they do that, they have to switch gears from doing something presumably more important.

What was the hardest experiment you did in your year of research?

Living in isolation for 10 days. I thought working in seclusion would allow me to get more done. But I learned how important people are for productivity. The point is to carve out more time for the things that are meaningful for you. I like to accomplish more [faster] so I have more time for investing in my relationships, soaking in good books, listening to music. It’s essential to have that reason why you want to improve the way you work. People underestimate how crucial your own happiness is for your productivity.  

Joan Mooney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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