When you’re facing neverending to-do lists and countless demands from co-workers, family members, and friends, it may seem like the only way to stay ahead is to grit your teeth and hustle. But, the authors of these books on productivity argue that much of what we believe about “keeping it all together” is myth, and that most of the stress we feel about our schedules can be traced to a few key habits. As summer comes to a close and work and school get back into full swing, These books can help you conquer schedule stress by revealing—and providing fixes for—key productivity stumbling blocks.
Divide and conquer
In The First 20 Hours, author and self-proclaimed “learning and skill acquisition expert” Josh Kaufman casts aside Malcolm Gladwell’s much-hyped “10,000 hour rule,” positing that anyone can master a new skill in 20 hours or less. One of the keys to rapid learning, he says, is dividing skills into “subskills”: “Once you’ve identified a skill to focus on, the next step is to deconstruct it,” he writes. “Once a skill is deconstructed sufficiently, it’s much easier to identify which subskills appear to be most important. By focusing on the critical subskills first, you’ll make more progress with less effort.”
Reevaluate your methods
When we fall behind, it’s all too easy to blame it on our circumstances (distracting office environment, uncooperative co-workers) or blame ourselves in a self-lacerating way. Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, the authors of The Art of Doing, definitely advocate for self-criticism—but only as a way of reaching a solution. In interviews with a wide range of super-achievers, from food-world luminary David Chang to tennis star Martina Navratilova, the authors found that a willingness to frequently reassess one’s methods helped subjects achieve greater productivity.
Don’t be busy for the sake of being busy
It’s tempting to gauge productivity by the sheer amount of work we get done. But in Extreme Productivity, Harvard Business School lecturer and former executive Robert C. Pozen says that focusing on the quality of our workload can actually do more to increase productivity than scrambling to meet every demand. “Professionals like the feeling of doing something,” Pozen writes. “They are not comfortable reflecting on their priorities… As a result, those energetic, ambitious people end up spending too little time on activities that support their highest goals.” Doing as much as you can, as fast as you can, may give you a temporary frisson of productivity, but getting too mired in the nitty-gritty can derail you from more important, long-term objectives. Pozen suggests writing down every meeting you attend and task your perform over the course a workday; then, decide which were valuable uses of your time and which could have been deferred or delegated.
4. 168 Hours
Plan your free time carefully
Everybody has the same amount of hours in a week: So why do some people seem to have ample time for work and play, while many of us struggle to keep our heads above water? In 168 Hours, business journalist Laura Vanderkam says one of the reasons many of us feel stretched too thinly and overburdened by demands is that we give little careful thought to our “me”-time. “The problem,” she writes, “is not that we’re all overworked and under-rested, it’s that most of us have absolutely no idea how we spend our 168 hours. We don’t think about how we spend our time, and so we spend massive amounts of time on things—television, Web surfing, housework, errands—[that do] little for our careers, our families, or our personal lives.” Keeping closer tabs on how we actually use our limited hours, she argues, will reveal opportunities for the pleasures and pursuits we often think we have no time for.
Don’t keep too much on the backburner
Being able to multitask and keep tabs on several ongoing projects at once are important skills for today’s professionals. As leading productivity expert David Allen points out in Getting Things Done, a now-classic guide, “the organizations we’re involved with seem to be in constant morph mode, with ever-changing goals,” and “the edges of our projects and our work in general” are “disintegrating.” But an excess of “open loops” or “incompletes,” he says, will pull your mind in too many directions, impairing your focus and leaving you feeling overwhelmed. “Most of the stress people experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments,” he writes. “Every single one of them—big or little—is being tracked by a less-than-conscious part of you.” In Getting Things Done, Allen offers advice on organizing your workflow and conducting your life in a way that promotes a feeling of relaxation and control—which, he argues, is the foundation of productivity.
Get the worst stuff out of the way
The attention-grabbing title of productivity expert Brian Tracy’s book comes from a quote by Mark Twain: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Tracy’s productivity advice follows suit: “Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task,” he says, “the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it. It is also the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment.” And if you have two “frogs”? “Eat the ugliest one first.”
Don’t beat yourself up
When we’re unproductive—missing deadlines, failing to complete our to-do lists, pressing pause on projects out of exhaustion—we tend to blame ourselves for being “lazy” or “unmotivated,” delivering a blow to our self-esteem and making it even harder to get things done. To counter this cycle, psychologist and speaker Neil Fiore suggests that we rethink the reasons we procrastinate. Citing experts and studies, he argues that we procrastinate “when we fear a threat to our sense of worth and independence” and that we “only act lazy when our natural drive for fruitful activity is threatened or suppressed.” His book The NOW Habit is full wisdom on recognizing the fears that drive us to procrastinate, and creating new sources of motivation to increase productivity.
This article was updated September 25, 2014