Essential Voices in Productivity

     I read a lot of books. In the past six months or so, I have been reading many, many books on productivity, focus, habits, performance, and personal improvement. I recently finished University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and am currently reading A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley. As I read these texts, something dawned on me. Many recent books on productivity and performance are referencing and describing the same three or four authors.

     I thought it would be worthwhile to write a bit about some of these “top dogs” in the productivity scene. Not all of the below listed researchers are productivity gurus per say. Two, in fact, are psychologists and one is a computer scientist.  But there is no denying that their work is highly influential in increasing personal productivity. I cannot imagine reading and following their work without feeling inspired to be more productive. If you are looking to become a more productive person yourself, consider checking out the below authors’ blog sites or books. I personally follow them regularly. Note, I use the term “productivity” here as a catch-all term for personal and professional development, focus, habits, etc.

David Allen – Getting Things Done

     I’d be completely remiss as a productivity blogger if I didn’t first mention the productivity classic Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity by David Allen. Allen’s text provides a specific and detailed methodology for being productive and staying organised. His underlying message: anything in your mental to-do list ends up causing anxiety, so in order to reduce stress in your life, capture all those items into a to-do list that exists outside of your head. He also emphasises the importance of ‘Next Action’ thinking. Essentially, you can break down any seemingly insurmountable task into a small, single next action. This single next action, regardless of how small, is enough to gain positive momentum for that task or project. You will find the GTD productivity system referenced again and again and again throughout the productivity literature space.

Cal Newport – Deep Work, www.studyhacks.com

     Dr. Cal Newport is a computer scientist at Georgetown University and obtained his Ph.D. degree from MIT in 2008. He is also my favourite advocate for improvement of personal productivity and time management. His blog site www.studyhacks.com provides regular articles on working better, smarter faster. Seriously, if you take any one action from this blog post, check out Cal’s website. That is where my personal productivity journey started. I have read his most recent book – Deep Work – twice now and look forward to reading his earlier text So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

     Cal’s message is quite simple – we can spend our time working deeply, through which our output will be at its highest. His blog site and books are great if you find yourself struggling with distractions. If you are an undergraduate student, he has only books on how to be an A student. I personally have found his voice incredibly powerful in an overly distracted, smart-phone addicted society.

K. Anders Ericsson – Deliberate Practice

     Anders Ericsson is a psychologist at Florida State University. He has devoted his career to the study of what makes experts in their field different than everyone else. He is known as the “Expert expert”. In all of his studies, he has found that what makes the elite truly great is not innate, natural talent, but rather how they practice and sharpen their skills. Specifically, elite performers engage in a particular type of practice, what Ericsson terms deliberate practice. Deliberate practice involves identifying weaknesses, then engaging in repetitive drills to improve those weaknesses. Often deliberate practice involves a coach or mentor who can provide feedback for quick correction. Ericsson also found of elite performers that they practiced deliberately significantly more than others.

     In nine out of ten productivity books I have read recently on productivity, Erikson and deliberate practice invariably comes up. His recent book, Peak, summarises and expounds his research.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Flow

     The other topic I find repeatedly being mentioned in productivity texts is psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s onflow. Think of flow as “being in the zone” – that mental space where time seems to stop moving, and you are totally absorbed in your work. Like Erikson, Csikszentmihaly also studied elite performers. He found they can reach and sustain periods of optimal experience – flow states – longer than others. I have also read his book – Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. While not as digestible as Peak, the book is essential reading for someone looking to be more productive. By turning our daily tasks into a productive flow states, our work is no longer something to be endured, but rather something to enjoy in and of itself. Admittedly, I am putting in some long hours of deep, focused work, six or sometimes seven days a week. I don’t think I could keep grinding it out, practicing deliberately, if I wasn’t, even if only at times, in a state of flow.

     While there are many other important contributors to the field of personal productivity, either through personal advocacy or academic research, I repeatedly find David Allen, Cal Newport, Anders Ericsson, and Mihaly Czensimihalyi’s work being referenced time and time again. I myself have been very committed to Cal Newport’s deep work philosophy and Erickson’s strategy of deliberate practice. Every work day for me is now an eight hour practice session in productivity, five times a week. I practice deliberately being productive and increasing my output per time spent. I track my results and see where I am weak. The next day I try to improve in that area of my personal productivity. If you are serious about becoming more productive, I highly, highly encourage you to start with these four authors and embrace their frameworks for working smarter.

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