The top 10 lessons I learned from A Year of Productivity

When I graduated University with a business degree last May, I received two incredible full-time job offers, both of which I declined because I had a plan.

For exactly one year, from May 1, 2013, through May 1, 2014, I would devour everything I could get my hands on about productivity, and write every day about the lessons I learned on A Year of Productivity.

Over the last 12 months I have conducted countless productivity experiments on myself, interviewed some of the most productive people in the world, and read a ton of books and academic literature on productivity, all to explore how I could become as productive as possible, and then write about the lessons I learned.

One year, 197 articles, and over one million hits later, I’ve reached the end of my year-long journey, but not before going out with a bang.

To close out my year of productivity, I have assembled a collection of all of the biggest things I’ve learned in my journey to become as productive as possible. Below are the 10 biggest productivity lessons I learned over the course of my project, and I also put together an article on my 100 favorite time, energy, and attention hacks I experimented with over the course of the year! I know you’ll get a ton out of both articles.

Without further ado, here are the top 10 productivity lessons I learned over the course of the entire year.

Moving forward, I’m going to continue to run productivity experiments on myself and research the heck out of productivity, albeit at a smaller scale as I tackle other projects at the same time. To continue to follow along with my journey, visit my new little corner of the Internet at A Life of Productivity.

10. One of the best ways to become more productive is to work on your highest-leverage tasks

There are just a few tasks in every area of your life (like your mind, body, emotions, relationships, career, finances, and fun) that contribute most of the value in each area. For example, there are likely just a few activities in your work through which you contribute 80–90% of your value to whomever you work for.

One of the best ways to accomplish more is to identify and then work on the highest-leverage tasks in each area of your life, because these are the activities that give you the greatest return for your time, energy, and attention.

9. The three most effective ways to become more productive are also the most boring pieces of advice you’ve already received

I think that behind every cliché is a truth that’s so powerful that people feel compelled to repeat the phrase over and over and over. This holds true for productivity advice, as well.

Over the last year I experimented with integrating countless habits and productivity techniques into my life, but at the end of the day, the three productivity techniques that worked the best for me were:

  1. Eating well
  2. Getting enough sleep
  3. Exercising

These pieces of advice are repeated so often that they lose almost all of their meaning. But take it from me, as someone who has experimented with hundreds of techniques to better manage my time, energy, and attention over the last decade: nothing has made me more productive than eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising.1

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8. Always question blanket productivity advice

There are some pieces of advice that work well for most people—eating well, getting enough sleep, exercise, and meditation included—but there are also exceptions to every rule.

It’s okay to buck conventional wisdom if something else works better for you. Find you get more done when you don’t wake up at 5:30 every morning? Then sleep in! Find you get more done when you don’t do your most important task first thing in the morning, and instead answer a bunch of emails? Then answer your email!

There is usually a kernel of truth behind every piece of productivity advice and conventional wisdom, but there are also a ton of productivity techniques that simply won’t work for you. Everyone thinks differently and has different priorities, so no piece of productivity advice will work perfectly for 100% of people, 100% of the time.

It’s okay to buck conventional wisdom if something else works better for you—and you should.

7. Forming good habits makes you more productive automatically

I think one of the best ways to become more productive is to convert new, productive behaviors into habits so you do them automatically.

According to Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, 40–45% of our daily activities are automatic habits. Habit formation isn’t easy, and it sometimes takes a few months to integrate a new habit into your life, but once a new behavior becomes a habit, you automatically level up to become more productive.

For example, it took me a few months to form a habit to wake up at 5:30 every morning, but after I did, waking up early became a keystone habit and I woke up early every morning automatically. It also took me several weeks to integrate a new eating regimen into my life, but after I did, my new eating habits simply became part of the tapestry of my life; blending in with all of my other automatic behaviors.

If you want to learn how to integrate new habits into your life, check out my interview with Charles. Forming new habits isn’t easy, especially when you have to expend willpower to will yourself into changing your behavior at first, but things get progressively easier as you go on, until you finally become more productive automatically.

timeenergyattention6. There are three ingredients you combine on a daily basis to be productive: time, energy, and attention

Toward the end of my project, I realized that every single article I wrote could be classified into one (or more) of three categories: how to better manage your time, how to better manage your energy, and how to better manage your attention.

I think all three ingredients are absolutely essential if you want to be productive on a daily basis. Some people have an amazing amount of energy and focus, but they’re not good at managing their time, so they don’t work on the right things and don’t get a lot done. Some people are great at managing their time and have a lot of energy, but they’re constantly distracted so they procrastinate and don’t get a lot done. Some people have laser-like focus and they know how to manage their time well, but they’re not good at managing their energy so they drag their feet and don’t get a lot done.

Productive people know how to effectively manage all three.

Interlude: 10 productivity experiments from my year of productivity

10 of my favorite experiments from my year of productivity, in no particular order. Just click on any picture to visit the experiment’s article.

 

5. There is no one secret to becoming more productive, but there are hundreds of tactics you can use to get more done

If there is a secret to becoming more productive, I didn’t find it during my year of experimenting with and exploring productivity.

But what I did discover were hundreds of tactics that I could use to better manage my time, energy, and attention. In fact, I uncovered so many of these tactics that I assembled a list of my favorite 100 tactics when I closed out my year.

Productivity is very much a holistic concept, characterized by the understanding of its interconnected parts. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of factors that contribute to how much you get done every day, every single one of which has to do with being able to manage your time, energy, and attention.

There isn’t one secret to becoming more productive—there are hundreds.

4. Working too hard or too much shatters your productivity

Over the course of my project, I found that working too hard or too much completely shattered my productivity.

As a productivity experiment I worked 90-hour weeks for a month, alternating between working 90 hours one week and then 20 hours the next. I actually found that I got about as much work done in both my 90-hour and 20-hour weeks, for a simple reason: when I limited how much time I spent on a task, I forced myself to exert more energy over less time so I could get the task done in what limited time I had. When I threw more time at my work in my longer weeks, I tended to procrastinate more, work on lower-leverage activities, and waste more time.

What happens when you work too hard and throw too much energy at a task? You burn out. (Interestingly, I didn’t uncover any adverse effects to throwing more attention at a task, though I find that your attention and energy levels often rise and fall in tandem.) I think of energy as the fuel a person burns throughout the day to get work done. When you throw more energy at your work without taking the time to recharge or nurture your energy levels along the way—like by exercising, taking breaks, eating well, or investing in effective stress relief strategies—you’re going to run out of fuel and burn out.

Working too much or too hard completely shatters your productivity because doing so robs you of two of your most valuable resources: your time, and your energy.

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3. The best way to feel motivated is to know why you want to get something done

The most motivated (and productive) people are the ones who constantly question why they’re doing what they are doing.

When you focus on doing more things, as opposed to doing things that are aligned to your values and what you believe in, you may be able to push yourself to be productive in the short run, but in the long run you’re going to be a lot less satisfied and productive. The key is to determine what you value and what motivates you the most, and then take on tasks and responsibilities that fit with your values.

treeJust because you’re constantly busy and you produce a lot doesn’t mean you’re productive—in fact, I’d argue that the opposite is the case. Productivity isn’t about how much you do, it’s about whether you achieve the outcomes that are the most important to you.

When you always know why you’re doing something, you’re going to be a lot more motivated and productive.

2. Becoming more productive is pointless if you’re not kind to yourself in the process

The reason I write so much about being kind to yourself on A Year of Productivity is because it’s the part of productivity that I struggle with the most.

When I first started AYOP, I dove head-first into the project because there isn’t anything I’m more passionate about than becoming more productive. It was easy, and at first I loved it; I didn’t put too much pressure on myself, so I had no problem getting work done.

But as this project grew, and as this site went from receiving a few thousand visits a month to a hundred thousand visits a month, I put more and more pressure on myself to write, experiment, and perform. And as a result, I had a lot less fun.

That’s hard to admit, particularly when a lot of people would kill to be in the position I find myself in today—exploring the topic I’m most passionate about, and making a go of it. But it just goes to show how important it is to be kind to yourself when you pressure yourself into becoming more productive.

Becoming more productive doesn’t happen without effort—you have to put pressure on yourself to perform better, but in the process it’s all too easy to be hard on yourself while you’re trying to make positive changes to your life.

Constantly be mindful of how kind you are to yourself when you’re pushing yourself to get more done. When 80% of what you say to yourself in your head is already negative, it’s important that you are kind to yourself every chance you get, particularly when you’re putting more pressure on yourself to become a better human being.

A few tactics that helped me be kind to myself over my year of productivity: meditating, taking more breaks, completely disconnecting from my work a few times a day, and adopting habits that lead to more happiness.

1. Productivity isn’t about how much you produce, it’s about how much you accomplish

When I first started my year of productivity, I created a Stats page so I could share exactly how productive I was every day. Every day I posted the number of words I wrote, pages I read, and hours I worked, because I considered these to be pretty good measurements of how productive I was.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Unless you run a factory, measuring your productivity based only on how much you produce gives you only a shallow, limited picture of how productive you are. In fact, if you come up with an intelligent and creative approach to a problem—let’s say that you find a way to write 500 words in 100—when you measure your productivity simply by how much you produce, you’re much less productive!

It’s easy to get caught up on measurements and statistics, but as far as personal productivity is concerned, statistics are secondary. Productivity isn’t about how much you produce, it’s about how much you accomplish.

It’s important to do tasks that are high leverage and meaningful, and it’s also important that you know how to manage your time, energy, and attention so you have the resources you need to get more done. But at the end of the day, when you have no more time, energy, or attention left, the only thing you’re left with is what you have accomplished, and the difference you have made in the world because you did something valuable with a day of your life.

That’s what productivity is all about.


  1. I would also include meditation in this list, though I’ll readily admit that the practice isn’t as accessible to most people as eating well, sleeping more, or working out. 

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  • http://hackdigital.net/ Luke Marshall

    Great words Chris. You cropped up on my radar early on during the journey and I’ve enjoyed cherry picking the pieces of advice that resonated with me the most. Thanks for embarking on this journey – a lot of the information you’ve distilled can be agonised over, and even if eating well, sleeping, and exercise are boring, at least we now know there’s a simple way to be as efficient as you can!

    I also liked your honesty re: being kind to yourself, it’s something I forget sometimes too, but it’s critically important.

    All the best for your next adventure!

    • http://alifeofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Thanks a lot Luke, that means a lot! Happy to have you along for the ride :-)

  • http://giannopoulos.net/ Markos Giannopoulos

    Excellent summary Chris, best of luck to… “phase 2″ ;)

    • http://alifeofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Thanks Markos!

  • Pip

    We’ll done on completing the year! I have already integrated at least 3 of your strategies into my life, the happiness ones are making a huge difference. Congratulations and a big thank you from me :-)

    • http://alifeofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      That means a lot Pip; comments like yours are the reason I do this project in the first place. Thanks a lot :-)

  • Dan Erickson

    Good job! I had to laugh at #9. That has been one of my biggest complaints since starting a blog. Everybody keeps repeating themselves. At least you did something different. So now what?

    • http://alifeofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Haha thanks man! Yeah, that one’s so obvious, but hardly anyone seems to do all three. Now I’m moving onto A Life of Productivity :-)

  • http://www.freetopursue.com Free To Pursue

    Nicely done. You gave yourself more than any year of school ever could.

    Part of what I learned during an MBA was: no one cares about your time if you don’t; hide the fact that you have down time, otherwise others will try to use it up for their purposes; and “face time” still rules, even for knowledge workers–ludicrous but true.

    I look forward to Part 2. How will you guard your new-found knowledge & habits within a system that dates back to industrialization?

    • http://alifeofproductivity.com/ Chris Bailey

      Thanks! I totally agree, I personally consider this project my “real world MBA” ;-)

      Part 2 will be the tricky/fun part, that’s for sure. I’m still in the planning stages for my next steps after AYOP, but it looks like it’s going to be exciting.

  • Patrick Flaton

    Anyone looking to accomplish more would do well to review the work done by Keirsey on Temperament. It lead me to the 4:1 rule. Doing one hour of what comes naturally (that is, consistent with your temperament) gives you four hours of value. Conversely, doing things outside your flow, four hours of effort will only produce one hour of value. Bottom line: before tackling something on your to-do list, decide if it is in your flow or not. If not, should you “assign/outsource” task to someone whose flow it fits with. Reading some of Keirsey’s work will help you to understand. Sally, Brisbane, Australia

  • Collin

    Thanks for the tips, Chris. I agree a lot of blanket productivity advice I read means well but typically offers an approach/tactics on HOW to be more productive without diving deeper. You made some great points reflecting on why you want to get things done and how to prioritize. At the end of day, the goal is to accomplish tasks that bring you the most satisfaction utilizing the optimal amount of your time, energy and attention.

  • jmk

    You are getting close to your holy grail. . Your writing style reveals quite a bit. Even though the ” reasons why” skims the idea of passion I was surprised that you did not write – or perhaps have not yet realized that when you have a “guiding vision or light or principle” that pretty much everything falls into place . In other words being productive towards what? Using the toilet is productive and although some may laugh, for a person going thru a kidney or colon scare this could be the most joyful moment of a week. month or even 8 week period. Overall I am grateful you did this project – Keep it up warrior – or more accurately continue your evolution . Cheers

  • Kyle Traveler

    Excellent post. Thanks so much for this incredible summary.

  • Cecilia

    Chris, you mention how you graduated from university and now you have many tips for productivity for working people. I love your article “100 time, energy and attention hacks to be more productive” but I was wondering if you were planning to release some productivity tips specifically for university students! At the moment I’m finding it so hard being productive, with extra curricular activities and I’m finding I’m falling more behind on studying, especially completing assignments on time. Would love to see what you think about this :)

  • http://aprettierweb.com/ A Prettier Web

    This is my first introduction to your site and wow, you’ve been on a journey! Interesting experiment and the outcome is definitely a good one! Thanks for my new take-away :)

  • Jo Santos

    Great article! I find myself presently going through this journey and working to understand what productivity means for me and what tactics / behaviours best help me achieve my productivity goals. I found that I’m more a night owl and get more work done late in the night vs. early morning. I have the luxury or double edge sword of working from home. This has been a new transition as I’ve always worked in an office environment. The learnings, both strengths and weaknesses that I have discovered and continue to uncover are fascinating. To move one self out of a familiar working environment such as the office, to now work from home completely changes one’s dynamic.

  • rbarnesdotcom

    Wow. I’ve done some years doing unproductivity, and not writing about it. I guess my results speak for themselves. LOL You are my hero of the week. Thanks so much for your efforts [ cant really call it sacrifice] and a giant hat-tip. Looking forward to more in the future.

  • J KING IMAGES

    You have made my day! Thank you so much for taking the time to share this.

  • UDCreate

    Wow, this is really eye opening. As a freelance web developer, increasing my productivity would
    make me manage multiple deadlines on projects.

  • http://GTDNext.com GTDNext.com

    What a great video and article Chris! You have been on an amazing journey and I’m sure you learned more in the year of productivity than you ever would have from a year of working in one of those two jobs you could have taken. Our interests align very closely. I’ve been working on (for not quite a year) on a productivity app called http://GTDNext.com – I’d love to show it to you. It’s in closed beta right now, but will be coming out soon. Let me know if you are interested and I can get you setup early. James

  • http://www.madanpatil.com/ Madan Patil

    First I would like to congratualte to you for this article. Productivity is my favorite subject that I always wanted to master. I have signed up for the newsletter as I think you are talking and sharing good.

  • Rajiv Mathew

    Thank you for this wonderful and insightful post!

  • http://guidetosuccessinlife.blogspot.com.au/ Isabella Manetti

    I got a lot of inspiration from your article. Productivity is one of the key factors to achieve our dream goal whatever that may be. If you are not productive well you get nowhere any time soon.

  • Parul Gupta

    Is there a printer friendly version of the articles?

  • Anna

    Totally shocked at how many subscriptions i had on my email – in the 100’s and I thought I was good at avoiding that! Thanks for the tool to address this!

  • Rob

    Hey Chris,
    I heard you on the CBC this week so thought I’d check out your site. I’m looking to make a career transition soon having worked in the financial services marketing industry for ~15 yrs. I agree with your findings on productivity…it’s like moving a ship though in the large corp’s as productivity is often determined by hours put in and meetings attended etc. Interesting about the 20/90 hr. work comparison. The best mgr. I had left on time every day/left meetings he didn’t need to be involved in and was an elite runner outside of work (oh ya, and his wife is getting ordained…so he’s probably meditated as well). Perhaps we’ll follow some of the European countries where experimenting with shorter work weeks are being rolled out in some industries. Maybe you can be a catalyst for that here!
    Cheers,
    Robert

  • Douglas Santos Silva

    It’s amazing. I write from brazil and this article changed my mind. I thought it was a factory defective with poor numbers. Congratulations.