Arts book review

A little heavy on the Kool-Aid: The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey

I now care less about productivity than I did before.

The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy
Chris Bailey
Crown Business
January 5, 2016

One of the goals I have for this lovely new year is to start reading again for enjoyment. With The Productivity Project, I’m off to a mediocre start. Just kidding. The Productivity Project is good for what it is: an anthology of tips to help you get a little more out of your day than you currently do. It’s interspersed with anecdotes from the author’s “year of productivity,” a year in which the author did nothing but experiment with different productivity techniques and write this book. But this is not a fun leisure read, unless you’re particularly enamored with the author’s personality on the page. Given that he wrote a book called The Productivity Project, you can maybe guess what that personality might be like.

The main draw of The Productivity Project is the fact that Bailey played guinea pig and tried all the productivity tactics we hear about on himself. The experiments he ran include: meditating for 35 hours a week, waking up at 5:30 every morning, hiring an assistant (an obnoxious section of this book), using his phone for only 1 hour a day, and more. Each chapter promises a glimpse into what these tactics might look like in practice, like those “I tried ____” videos on YouTube but for 25+ things. His reflections are interesting and thoughtful, and he’s honest about what works for him (e.g. working during what he calls his “biological prime time,” a term that he uses ad nauseam as soon as he introduces it) and what doesn’t (e.g. waking up at 5:30 a.m., or working 90 hours a week), as well as how much he struggled or failed at certain experiments (e.g. eating only soylent for a week, or again, waking up at 5:30 a.m.).  

Yet one persistent gripe I had while reading was a lack of specificity and transparency about exactly how certain experiments were run. He simultaneously ran many experiments, like waking up at 5:30 a.m. and working out every morning. You just have to take his word that one given strategy was what produced a certain result (e.g. a better ability to focus), rather than any of the other several tactics he was trying out at the same time. I would’ve liked to see tables or schedules of exactly what he did, which are noticeably missing — and no, that would not have made the book more boring than it already is. There’s also a pseudoscientific haze around the whole book: he coins terms like “biological prime time” or “low impact maintenance tasks” and then uses them for the rest of the book, even going so far as to make abbreviations like “BPT” (heinous behavior), while you as the reader are just supposed to accept these frameworks as meaningful. To his credit, he cites many research studies. But a lot of his advice is based on his own individual sample size of one. I could never quite suspend my skepticism enough to buy into everything he said: I could trust him as an expert on his own behavior, but not as an expert on all human behavior. 

A strength of The Productivity Project is its organization: short sections with catchy headlines, bullet-pointed lists, digestible paragraphs, and “challenges” at the end of each chapter to get the reader to work with some of the ideas he introduced. A quick disclaimer: I did not do most of these, since several require you to commit to them for a week. He also calculates the estimated time of reading a chapter or doing a challenge at the beginning of each relevant section down to the second, which could be useful if you aren’t aware of your own reading speed. While I personally was not too enamored with the actual content, The Productivity Project is at least relatively easy to read. 

Speaking of the actual content, this book seems to be best suited for individuals who are just starting out in the area of making conscious improvements to their habits and lives. Many of the tips mentioned in this project were not very new to me; I’d already implemented several tips, like meditation or various ideas around sleep hygiene, in some form. However, being reminded of the tips I’d seen before but hadn’t yet tried did make me more interested in trying them out. Although this book severely lacks a comprehensive guide to exactly how and when to make these lifestyle adjustments, the abundance of strategies Bailey discusses makes The Productivity Project a great introduction to the different types of lifestyle adjustments that exist out there.

One major blindspot of Bailey’s discussion is his lack of consideration for the role that emotional maturity and emotional regulation play in an individual’s ability to get the things they want done and the importance of developing those emotional faculties. I found this particularly notable in the section on procrastination, which was one of my least favorite sections of the book and which made me think that perhaps I knew more about procrastination than the author. Bailey attributes procrastination pretty much exclusively to tasks being undesirable, when in reality there can be a lot of issues going on behind the scenes: unmet emotional needs, perfectionism, etc. Bailey doesn’t completely ignore his emotional experiences in his discussions, but his writing does make me think that he has never seriously struggled with mental illness: whether that assumption is right or wrong, I guess I’ll never know. 

Other blindspots exist as well, including Bailey’s lack of consideration for adverse socioeconomic circumstances or neurodivergence. The Productivity Project definitely reads as something meant for upper-middle-class software engineers, finance bros, or a high schooler with doctors for parents and too much time on their hands (this is fully a roast of myself; I picked up this book, after all). In one pretty revolting part of the book, he complains that a virtual assistant he hired from India for $5-$10 an hour was “absolutely terrible.” Bailey comes off most obnoxious when assuming that his readers have such a narrow range of lifestyles. Of course, there’s the bootlicking of Steve Jobs, but that seems to be par for the course in productivity books. 

The most interesting chapter of The Productivity Project to me was the last chapter, where Bailey talks briefly about the importance of being kind to oneself and having good social support when trying to make improvements to your life. These areas, while quite simplified in his discussion, are the aspects of my life that I personally believe to be at the root of my own ability, or inability, to function on a day-to-day basis. While it was good to see these areas acknowledged, including them at the end wasn’t enough to make up for the eye-rolling quality of previous parts. 

Am I glad I read The Productivity Project? Yes, in that it’s one step along the way of my broader goal to read more this year. But I didn’t personally gain much more knowledge from the book than I already had, and I don’t think I’m the kind of person that this book is designed to help. So I’ll probably stay away from this variety of reading material for a while. Instead, I’ll be reaching for what I’m missing more at the moment: fiction and memoir.