I Read 3 Productivity Books and Here's What I Learned

I've heard so many people use the same saying, 'work expands to fill the available time.' I've often given myself four hours to complete a task that could take an hour and spent the first three hours procrastinating. I decided to really test this theory by halving my working hours.

I Read 3 Productivity Books and Here's What I Learned

Over the last few months, I've heard so many people use the same saying, 'work expands to fill the available time.' I've often given myself four hours to complete a task that could take an hour and spent the first three hours procrastinating and reading articles that are tangential to the work at hand. I decided to test this theory by halving my working hours to achieve the same output and quality of work.

Parkinson's Law

There were three productivity books that kept coming up:

  1. Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky
  2. Atomic Habits by James Clear
  3. Deep Work by Cal Newport

Exhibit A: Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky

Make Time is not really a productivity book, but about 'slowing down the crazy rush to make time for things that matter.' The authors Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky are both product designers and built services like Gmail, YouTube and Google Hangouts. They know firsthand how the platforms and technologies we use have been created to be addictive.

There are two powerful forces competing for every second of our time:

  1. Busy Bandwagon (culture of constant busyness: overflowing inboxes, stuffed calendars and endless to-do lists)
  2. Infinity Pools (apps and other sources of endlessly replenishing content)

When we look back on our lives will we remember scrolling through Instagram or Twitter? Make Time is a 'framework for choosing what you want to focus on, building the energy to do it, and breaking the default cycle so that you can start being more intentional about the way you live your life.'

I Made Some Radical Changes

Knapp and Zeratsky suggest deleting all apps from your phone. Now I didn't go that far. But I removed all notifications. I'm no longer at the whim of other people's demand for my time and when I open WhatsApp, Instagram or even my Mail app, it's because I'm choosing to be distracted.

I start the day with one high-priority goal. I am partial to a long and cumbersone to-do list. Who doesn't get a rush from ticking off every item? But I never stopped to consider the quality of the items on this list: were they important? How did they fit into my broader goals?

The highlight doesn’t even need to be work related. It's also not the only thing you’ll do each day, but simply the priority. Try it for a week each day asking yourself, “what’s going to be the highlight of my day?” You'll soon see the impact a simple shift in approach can make.

Research shows that the way you experience your days is not determined primarily by what happens to you. But you create your own reality by choosing what you pay attention to. Creating a high-priority goal per day and having that as a "highlight" that you want to achieve, is a great way to ensure you're taking time to do what matters.

Knapp and Zeratsky encourage readers to take the time every few days to reflect on what went well during the week and what didn't. It's only in writing this that I've realised that I haven't been (oops). But without analysing the steps and systems in place to get to your desired outcome, how can we know we are getting to where we need to be?

Exhibit B: Atomic Habits by James Clear

James Clear's Atomic Habits has been recommended to me over twenty times over the last few years. I kept wondering "how good can a book about habits really be?" Turns out very.

Clear begins his story with a life-changing injury as a teenager where he was hit in the face with a baseball bat. Clear was quickly whisked away to hospital, as his body could no long fulfil basic functions like swallowing and breathing. It took him over a year to return to the baseball pitch. As you can imagine his abilities were not what they once were. Despite being plagued with self-doubt, Clear remained convinced that he could one day become a great player. At college he made tiny incremental changes to his lifestyle that over time were transformational. According to Clear, 'a habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly—and, in many cases, automatically.'

On our way to achieving a particular goal, there isn't one defining moment, but many. It's a gradual evolution and a series of small wins and tiny breakthroughs.

There are 3 layers of behaviour change, 'outcomes are about what you get, processes are about what you do and identity is about what you believe.' The best way to form or break habits is to penetrate all three. While reading there were three takeaways that really resonated for me.

Small habits and why they make a difference

When we think of goals (running a marathon, writing a book and running a successful business) we only think of the finished outcome. As Clear writes, 'we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.' When we make small steps every single day. Rather than aiming to write a book, we should aim to write a paragraph every day.

It's easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Improving 1% isn't necessarily noticeable, but very meaningful over time. Conversely when we repeat 1% errors every day and replicate poor decisions and tiny mistakes, over time these can create toxic results. As Clear emphasises, 'change can take years - before it happens all at once.'

Forget about goals and focus on systems

For years now, I've been very keen on setting goals. Daily, weekly or monthly goals, but results has very little to do with goals and everything to do with systems. In fact, 'Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.'

4 problems with goal-setting:

  1. Winners and losers have the same goals
  2. Achieving a goal is only a momentary change
  3. Goals restrict your happiness
  4. Goals are at odds with long-term progress

Make it Easy

It can be easy to repeat bad habits and hard to form good ones. At the beginning you really need to gear yourself up for exercising, meditating, journaling and cooking. But breaking habits like smoking, eating junk food or biting your fingernails can be an uphill battle.

Making a specific plan for when and where to perform a new habit makes it much more likely to keep up. These basic details make all the difference for picking up new habits. Changing our thinking from 'I want to meditate more' to 'I will meditate at 8am in the living room every day' and setting a reminder while you are at it.

A Few Tips To Make New Habits Easier

  1. Habit stacking: identifying a current habit you do each day and then stacking your new behaviour on top (meditation after my morning coffee)
  2. Designing your environment for success: making a cue a big part of your environment to train yourself to link a particular habit with a particular context (laying out a place mat and incense in the living room for morning meditation)
  3. Increasing the friction: until you don't even have the option to act (moving my phone into the other room, so I don't scroll on Instagram rather than meditate)

Exhibit C: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Last but certainly not least, I read Deep Work. Newport is associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University who popularised the term deep work, which he defines as:

'Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.'

Simple in principle. With the sheer amount of devices and communication tools fighting for our attention, it's becoming difficult to master.

The author spends a quarter of the book explaining why deep work is valuable. Then Newport changes tact, stating that we are undergoing a 'great restructuring' that changes work forever. This new economy advantages two capabilities. Hint: both require deep work.  

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed

Open plan offices, social media and regular meetings are preventing us from ever getting to uninterrupted stretches of intellectually challenging work.

I mostly agree with the central tenets of this book, but I struggled with how unflinching Newport's approach was. He's opted to live a very disconnected life with no social media and practices "digital minimism," which probably isn't everyone's bag.

Social media has taught me enormously and enriched my life through connection. I still believe the key is to find equilibrium. Since reading the book, I've tried two to four hour periods of uninterrupted deep work interspersed with distractions.

But here are some of Newport's tips:

  1. Quit social media
  2. Don't use the internet to entertain yourself
  3. Become hard to reach

I'm all for being hard to reach and putting myself on Airplane mode, but the internet aside from reading, is and likely will remain my main form of entertainment. YouTube, Netflix and Hayu (for the time being) have given me much more than they've taken away.

There is a dismissiveness of social media, which comes from Newport never having fully explored it, as he states:

'The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind.'

I believe you can go deep without completely disconnecting from the world around you. Make Time acknowledges the necessity of social media, while providing actionable tips to focus on more meaningful work.

Over the last few weeks despite cutting back on my hours, I've achieved close to the same amount as I would normally. These three books are a great place to find a few productivity hacks that work for you.