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The 3 Habits of Highly Productive People

Chris Bailey spent a year studying the shortest routes to enhancing productivity and offers the three most effective strategies.

Photo by Chris Roussakis

When Chris Bailey graduated from business school, he declined to take one of the full-time jobs he was offered and instead shuttered himself away from the world for a year to dig into what’s known about productivity. Among his discoveries is it begins “with our intentions,” Bailey said in the talk he presented last week at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Toronto. Bailey, the author of the Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy, identified three key ways to increase productivity. 

1. Follow the rule of three.

Our brains, said Bailey, work in threes. Whether it’s the phrase, “the third time’s a charm,” a fable like “The Three Little Pigs,” or the fact that we divide stories into three acts, the number sticks with us all through our lives. Which is why it is helpful to think of our tasks in threes instead of trying to organize every little detail on our plates. “At the start of the day, you mentally fast forward to the end of the day and you ask yourself, ‘By the time this day is done, what three main things will I want to have accomplished?’ That’s it,” Bailey said. “Set three intentions every day and also at the beginning of each week.”

2. Track your procrastination.

People procrastinate for a number of reasons — because a task is difficult, frustrating, lacks personal meaning, or feels unstructured. In his research, Bailey discovered many ways to conquer the power of procrastination. But perhaps the most important piece of advice he gave to the ASAE audience was to track how much time we waste in a day. “When we do knowledge work for a living, we procrastinate in some pretty weird ways,” Bailey said. “We don’t just hang out by the water cooler — we might refresh our email 20 times and look over them a bunch of times, then maybe jump over to [reading] the news.” All this extraneous reading, he said, adds up quickly. By monitoring his own procrastination over a week in a spreadsheet, Bailey was able to narrow his time wasted from six hours to just one hour. “Still not perfect,” Bailey said, “but everybody procrastinates.”

3. Minimize distractions and interruptions.

 Microsoft researchers found that we only do 40 seconds of work on the computer before becoming distracted. Once we’re interrupted completely, it can take as long as 26 minutes to get back on track. While there are many distractions that are out of our control, such as meetings to attend or co-workers who want to chat — we can control our personal distractions, like visiting Facebook during the workday, said Bailey. “One of the most productive things that you can do is to go through the settings app on your phone and disable any distraction that you don’t want to be tripped up by. Anything that’ll prevent you from getting past that 40-second mark that will make you lose 26 minutes of productivity? Disable it,” he said. He also suggested keeping track of how frequently you visit your work email inbox, as mindlessly rechecking emails can put otherwise hard workers on autopilot.

Casey Gale