Summary of The Little Book of Productivity, by Scott Young

Scott Young’s The Little Book of Productivity is a self-help gem. I strongly recommend reading the book in full, and periodically going through the summary below to identify productivity techniques that you haven’t yet tried.

Part 1: Beating procrastination

  1. Have a reason to be productive
    Write down what you would do if you had more time and energy.
  2. Have weekly and daily goals
    1. At the end of each week, write a list of work you want to finish in the next seven days.
    2. At the end of each day, transfer some of the tasks from your weekly list to a new list.
    3. When you complete your daily goals, stop working for that day.
  3. Use timeboxing
    Set a timer. Don’t stop working until you finish the task, or the time is over.
  4. Dissolve tasks
    Break down larger tasks into actionable chunks.  Your do-to list should make it obvious what should be done in the next 60 seconds
  5. Apply sprinting theory
    Focus on the time-frame where discipline is required. E.g., if you strive to stay awake for 10 minutes, you probably won’t need much effort to stay awake afterwards.
  6. Calibrate your schedule
    Have full trust in your to-do list.  When it says you have a lot of work to do, you get all of it done. When it says you are finished, you stop.
  7. Build self-discipline muscles
    Measure how strong your discipline is currently. Then use that measurement as a basis for making small improvements.
  8. Use a mantra
    Come up with a phrase that you associate to being productive.  Shout “Do it now!” every time you feel like procrastinating.
  9. Remove your hidden roadblocks
    If you’ve tried everything to cure your procrastination and still can’t motivate yourself, the problem might be in the soil.  Replacing the soil needs to come before you start adding the industrial fertilizer of productivity techniques.
  10. Use motivation catalysts
    Motivation catalysts reduce the activation cost of getting started:
    1. Keep a list of your goals.
    2. Make a public commitment.
    3. Use post-it notes.
  11. Churn
    Accept that you will have to scrap most of your sub-par work when you churn.  Lower your quality threshold and expect to trash most of your output eventually.
  12. Create a distraction-free workplace
    Eliminate distractions:
    1. On your computer.
    2. On your desk.
    3. From other people.
  13. Don’t “should” yourself
    “Should” doesn’t motivate; it just makes you guilty. Instead of “shoulding” yourself, keep a list of your reasons for working on a given task or project.
  14. Ready, fire, aim!
    You should take action and then correct your approach.  Focus on getting the first draft done before planing out your suggestions for improvement.
  15. Quit your procrastination vices
    Write out a list of the things that eat up a lot of your time without adding much value back. Then either eliminate the vice entirely or constrict the vice so that you use it deliberately.

Part 2: Becoming organized

  1. Remember that organization is a skill
    Organization is a mix of design and maintenance.  A well-designed system allows you to keep everything in order with less effort. But such systems need maintenance, because even perfect systems will be subject to external disruption.
  2. Reduce mess to avoid stress
    Organize on two fronts:
    1. Your physical environment: give everything a home.
    2. Your tasks and work: have a system for dealing with to-do lists, calendars and projects.
  3. Have a capture device
    A capture device is the single best way to remove the burden of remembering stuff.
  4. Give everything a home
    The key to staying organized is that everything should have a home. Every physical item in your house should have a place where it is supposed to rest. Every task, event and project should have a place in your system where it will wait.
  5. Adopt the Simple Organizing System
    Keep three piles: Projects, Tasks and Events. Almost everything you’ll need to record fits into one of these three boxes.
  6. Adopt the Simple Organizing System: Projects
    Writing a page is a task; writing a book is a project.  Keep small slips of paper for detailing your projects.
  7. Adopt the Simple Organizing System: Tasks
    Have global, weekly and daily to-do lists. Projects and the global list filter tasks into the weekly list each week. Events filter tasks into the daily list each night.
  8. Adopt the Simple Organizing System: Events
    Keep a calendar to store events. When the day of the event arrives, turn the event into a task on the daily list. Thus, the daily list contains all the isolated tasks, tasks from projects, and events that need to be done that day.
  9. Write out your goals
    Writing your goals
    1. Makes them unforgettable.
    2. Motivates you to accomplish them.
    3. Turns vague desires into concrete objectives.
  10. Use the branch method
    Rather than searching for the “perfect” system, develop a system that adapts to new changes.
  11. Optional: use communication logs
    If you are e.g. a salesperson making calls and follow-ups to dozens of clients, you may want to use a sheet to keep a record of each person and organization that you deal with, with a column for the date, time, method of contact, name of the person contacted and what was said in the interaction.
  12. Do what you say you will do
    Make sure ambiguous items filter down into your weekly and daily goals.
  13. Be organized, not tidy
    Organization isn’t about appearances; it is about keeping a system that makes finding what you need and storing what you find easier.
  14. Take notes
    Keep a notebook of the things you read.
  15. Organize digitally
    Give everything a home, regular maintenance, and look for changes in the system. With digital files,
    1. Purge unneeded files regularly and separate archives from active files.
    2. Subdivide folders into pieces as it starts to become cluttered; if a folder is rarely used, merge it back into another folder.

Part 3: Staying energized

  1. Adopt a morning ritual
    A morning ritual is a set of activities you do consistently for the first 30-60 minutes after you wake up.
    1. Add some form of exercise to your routine.
    2. Avoid activities that use your brain passively.
  2. Take a day off
    By taking a day off every seven days, you’ll be able to recharge the batteries that were drained throughout the week.
  3. Make an exercise routine
    Few investments give a higher return than exercise.  Add a quick, 20-minute jog to your morning ritual.
  4. Eat for energy
    Eat smaller meals more frequently throughout the day. Eating 4-6 meals instead of 2-3 ensures a steady supply of energy to your body.
  5. Make your time top-heavy
    1. Place your biggest tasks right after your morning ritual on your daily to-do list.
    2. Place more work on Monday than Friday on your weekly to-do list.
  6. Work in cycles
    Cyclicity is the key to energy management. Read The Power of Full Engagement to learn more about working in cycles. [my summary of the book]
  7. Close open loops
    An open loop is a task that has no clearly defined stopping point.  When you don’t have a stopping point you can’t work in cycles. Close all open loops.
  8. Avoid multitasking
    When you are working on a task, that task should be your complete focus.
  9. The 15-minute rule
    Fifteen minutes is often all you need to overcome a temporary slump.  According to the 15-minute rule, whenever you feel close to quitting, commit only to another fifteen minutes of work.
  10. Drink water
    Try keeping a bottle of water with you at your desk. It’s much easier to be dehydrated than overhydrated, so fill your bottle regularly.
  11. Recharge your motivation
    The best way to stay motivated is to do a review of your goals.  Look at your progress and read your reasons for setting those goals in the first place.
  12. Stay sharp
    1. Change your mental diet: remove information sources that don’t give you need ideas to work with.
    2. Take up mental exercise: make it a rule to be always engaged in some form of learning.
  13. Keep a work/play schedule
    You need to cycle between work and rest. Follow your daily and weekly goals lists as a way of deciding when to continue and when to stop.  Avoid falling into a laissez-faire strategy of energy management.
  14. Balance creative muscles
    Notice when you are running low on energy with a particular type of task.  Instead of giving up altogether, look at your to-do list for activities that might use different muscles.

Part 4: Getting things finished

  1. Complete projects, not tasks
    Give priority to projects. While tasks and events are important, more weight should be given to completing entire projects.
  2. Set deadlines
    All of your projects and tasks should have deadlines attached.  Set deadlines for each phase of a major project along with a deadline for the project itself.
  3. Have weekly reviews
    Every seven days (preferably on your day off), give yourself 90 minutes of complete isolation to do a weekly review.  Such reviews make sure that all the effort you are putting forward is useful and not just keeping you busy.
  4. Avoid hard deadlines
    Hard deadlines are deadlines imposed by other people.  Soft deadlines are those you set yourself.  Set soft deadlines rather than hard deadlines.
  5. Beware Parkinson’s Law
    According to Parkinson’s Law, work will tend to expand to fill time allotted. Set tight deadlines on projects to minimize the time you spend on them.
  6. Beware Hofstadter’s Rule
    According to Hofstadter’s Rule, it always takes longer than you expect, even when you take Hofstadter’s Rule into account. So set firm deadlines, but be aware that your ambitions will probably be unrealistic.
  7. Reward laziness
    Work less, do more. Use your laziness constructively to help you accomplish more actual work.  Eliminate large tasks that don’t add value. Simplify complex projects that can be made smaller. Use your brain to save yourself time and energy.
  8. Use skeleton planning
    Creating a skeleton plan means you only plan out elements that are absolutely necessary before moving forward. Only rigid decisions that can’t change once you start should be made. Flexible decisions that leave several options should be left until later.
  9. Don’t reinvent the wheel
    Look for shortcuts in your projects.  These are areas where you can completely eliminate large sections of work by using ready-made solutions, outsourcing, or just removing a feature.
  10. Use rapid prototyping
    Starting from one prototype, grow it into a larger version. At each point, you can more easily correct errors and save yourself from walking down dead-ends.
  11. Don’t pay yourself by the hour
    When working on self-directed projects, focus on work done, not hours spent.  Focus on completing every item in your daily to-do list, regardless of whether this takes three hours or ten.
  12. Force yourself to be productive
    Efficiency doesn’t work in a vacuum. Without pressure forcing you to become productive, it’s very easy to waste time.
  13. Use daily check-marks
    Create a list of habits or productive virtues that you want to focus on each day. Every day you achieve it, check it off the list.
  14. Develop an exit strategy
    What will you do after you finish your daily goals? If you can’t answer this question, it’s easy to let that list occupy your entire day.  Unless you have a clear picture of how you want to relax when you are done, you’ll tend to let your daily goals list expand to fill every waking hour.

Part 5: Automate your routine

  1. Pay attention
    We pay attention literally: concentration has a cost.  You can’t attend to all the ideas in the book, but you can gradually turn them into habits.
  2. Use 30-day trials
    The 30DT is simple but powerful.  It works through the power of focus.  By getting you to concentrate on one change for a month, you can use the 1% of conscious resources to sculpt part of the 99% of unconscious processing.
  3. Aim at focusing on non-routine tasks only
    Ideally your mental energy should be spent on non-routine tasks.  Routine tasks should be integrated into your schedule so firmly that they don’t require attention.
  4. Use triggers
    A trigger is a highly conditioned starting point for running a full habit. It consists of a signal and a ritual. The signal is the cue for starting your habit. The ritual is what you need to do immediately after your habit.
  5. Keep replacement theory in mind
    Tearing down habits and putting up new ones may disrupt your balance of emotional and physical needs.  Try to design new habits that minimize such disruptions.
  6. Use operant conditioning
    Make sure the balance of feedback for a new habit is positive.
  7. Tackle one habit at a time
    Taking on multiple habit chances at once usually fails, because it spreads your focus too thinly among several different habits.
  8. Be consistent
    Every habit you condition should, if possible, be practiced daily.  Ensure that, for at least the first month, there are no interruptions and your habit is repeated every day.
  9. Invest in yourself first
    Your investment habits should come before any other scheduling of your time.  By putting these activities first, you ensure that a busy schedule doesn’t displace the time needed to ingrain a habit.
  10. Set an unbreakable standard
    Adopt the standard that, no matter what, you’ll reach the end of the first 30 days.  Even if you later decide to drop the habit, you won’t quit until reaching that milestone. If you can’t make it through a 30DT, start back at Day 1.
  11. Ratchet your productivity
    Start with a simple change, and gradually expand. You can ratchet your productivity by locking in any improvements as habits before moving onto the next change.
  12. Leave necessary vices alone
    Some activities may not contribute directly to work, but are still necessary.  Don’t get rid of these activities.
  13. Adopt an internet ritual
    Come up with an efficient way to handle your email and set it as a habit.
  14. Experiment with habits
    Take risks with habits.  Some may turn out to be duds, but others will be great additions.

Part 6: Productivity hacks

  1. Outsource
    Outsourcing requires setup and can be more expensive than doing the thing yourself. But it is a trick to remember when you need to boost your productivity.
  2. Turn off automatic messaging
    If you want to accomplish any work that requires sustained focus, turn off any automatic messages.
  3. Split up creative phases
    Most creative tasks have two challenges: building enough creative fodder and sculpting that material into something useful. You can reduce the time it takes to finish creative work by splitting up these two phases.
  4. Batch tasks
    Batching is the art of taking similar tasks and doing them all at the same time. Batching removes the start-up and slow-down phases of work; keeps you in the same frame of mind; and simplifies your workload.
  5. Avoid lazy people
    Attitudes are contagious. Spend time with productive people. Find individuals with the same goals. And look for friends with the right habits.
  6. Adopt a low-information diet
    Start by eliminating information streams that aren’t useful to you.  Next, cut down the information streams you don’t need to view regularly.
  7. Cultivate the now habit
    By focusing on the current task, instead of letting your mind wander, you can produce high-quality work at a much faster rate.
  8. Look for exponential payoffs
    You can greatly increase your productivity if you focus on activities that invest with exponential payoffs (e.g. setting up an online business, where with each step refining your process, the improvements work on an exponential scale).
  9. Learn speed reading
    The skills you learn as a speed reader can be used to read faster, but mostly they are designed to help you read more efficiently.
  10. Learn holistically
    Holistic learning is a strategy that avoids rote memorization, and instead relies on connecting ideas together as a means of remembering them.
  11. Write to solve problems
    Writing is one of the best ways to control and speed up your problem-solving methods.  The next time you get stuck, write your way out of it.
  12. Use to-learn lists
    Books to read, films to watch, classes and subjects to study are all examples of what you could include in your to-learn lists.
  13. Get ruthless feedback
    You can get ruthless feedback by changing how you ask for it. For instance, you can ask, “What do you feel is the biggest weakness of this idea or product?”
  14. Try sensory deprivation
    As long as there are interesting things surrounding you, it can be hard to work through difficult tasks. Sensory deprivation may not always be needed, but it can be a useful measure when faced with a difficult deadline or a boring project.

Part 7: Doing the right work

  1. Focus on the daily six
    Each day write the numbers one to six on a piece of paper and write out the six most important tasks for the day.  Then begin at number one.
  2. Know what you want
    Ask yourself:
    1. Why am I pursuing this project?
    2. What will I have accomplished when the project is finished?
    3. What features need to be in place to complete this project?
    4. What is the primary goal of this project?
    5. What are the secondary goals of this project?
  3. Separate planning from doing
    Plan during your weekly and monthly reviews: these are the times when you can pull out of the project and assess big questions.  However, when you are not actively doing a review, your focus should be shifted to getting work done.
  4. Measure
    An old business adage is, “That which is measured, improves.” All measurements should be focused on trends, patterns and aggregates. Only when you look at the broader patterns can you see the effects of your habits.
  5. Experiment
    The experimental approach involves making hypotheses about the way the world works and then testing them in a controlled setting. You’ll never reach the scientific accuracy of a laboratory in your personal life, but even crude experiments can save you time.
  6. Log your time
    A time log is a record of every activity you spent time on, usually kept for 4-5 days. A time log will tell you where you are spending most of your time, what are your most frequent time-wasters, and whether you are spending enough time on the most important projects.
  7. Prioritize
    Think of the 80/20 rule as a filter for your work. By constantly cycling through the filter any new tasks you get, you can keep your workload manageable while having the maximum effect.  All tasks are not created equal; with the 80/20 rule you can split the ones that matter least from the ones that matter most.
  8. Use to-stop lists
    To-stop lists are as important as to-do lists.  In order to do important work, you need to stop doing work that is less important.
  9. Fail quickly
    Don’t fall into the trap of believing it’s better to avoid failure as long as possible. The faster you can get feedback, even potentially project-crushing feedback, the better.
  10. Focus on accomplishment
    Accomplishment is more than staying organized. It is about taking a lot of action, doing work and being ruthless in your pursuit of the end result. Read Cal Newport’s The art of finish.
  11. Be a hedgehog
    It’s more important to be a hedgehog than to be a fox. Trying to be great at everything can result in being good at nothing. Picking a select few skills to master is usually a better strategy.
  12. Working hard isn’t important
    To be truly productive, you need to balance two complete different skills. One is the ability to work hard. This is important, but not enough.  The other skill is the ability to avoid hard work.
  13. Calculate your value added
    If you make $5000 per month, try to give a dollar amount to the relative contribution each tasks provides to this $5000. Combining this value-added calculation with a time log can show you a relative distribution of your effectiveness.
  14. Have a purpose
    What is the point of all this productivity stuff, anyway? Remind yourself periodically why you want to be productive.