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Book Review: The Little Book of Productivity

September 10th, 2008 · 17 comments

The PremiseThe Little Book of Productivity

Scott Young recently released a new eBook titled The Little Book of Productivity. The idea is simple: The volume of available information concerning “productivity” is overwhelming. (Scott’s blog alone has contributed close to 300 articles on the subject.) This eBook attempts to cut through the clutter and identify 99 of the best ideas. Each idea gets one page: some of this advice comes from Scott’s blog; some comes from other blogs; some is brand new.

Unlike related guides, such as Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done (affiliate link) or David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Scott does not attempt to construct a comprehensive system. Instead, he provides an arsenal of small ideas, and hopes, I assume, that readers will use this as a starting point for piecing together a custom system.

The Content

Scott divides his 99 ideas between seven chapters Below I list the chapters and provide a brief description for each, including what I liked and didn’t like. Keep in mind that the entire first chapter — Beating Procrastination — is available as a free download, so don’t just take my word for it, check out the content for yourself.

Chapter 1: Beating Procrastination
This chapter focuses on getting started. It’s advice spans from detailed time management techniques to big picture psychological questions. My favorite tip was to train your self-discipline like a muscle (a strategy I’ve recently adopted). Some redundancy — inevitably — lurks in these pages. For example, tips on “time-boxing” and “sprinting theory” both emphasize the same point: work in scheduled chunks of time.

Chapter 2: Becoming Organized
This chapter focuses on organization. It’s motivating idea: if you’re organized you can finish projects with less effort. Amen! It’s advice spans from the literal — clean your desk — to the conceptual — capture tasks. I was intrigued by his Simple Organizing System (SOS), which simplifies his task landscape down to three piles: projects, tasks, and events. On closer inspection, it’s a tweak on GTD. Students might enjoy the rules for moving tasks between the daily, weekly, and project level, as these simplify work decisions. On the other hand, productivity junkies might be bored by yet another small variation on Allen’s timeless system.

Chapter 3: Staying Energized
This chapter focuses on the often overlooked importance of energy-management. I’m a big believer in Scott’s advice to take days off, work in cycles, and build play into your schedule. Too many students fall into the easy (but stressful) mindset that equates stress and fatigue with being responsible and relaxation with being a slacker. This theme of avoiding mental guilt-trips shows up in multiple chapters, and I give Scott credit for hammering it home. The rest of this chapter is hit or miss. Most readers will likely skim the notes on drinking water and exercising, for example, as being obvious and lacking that pop that distinguishes the most clever ideas in the book.

Chapter 4: Getting Things Finished
This chapter focuses on completing projects. I have a particular fondness for this content because some of it is motivated from a popular guest post I wrote for Scott’s blog. Most of the ideas in this chapter attack the completion-centric philosophy from different angles — from avoiding over-planning to escaping the “pay by the hour” mindset. This is a great treatment of an important topic. As my readers know, however, I’m not a fan of pseudo-scientific self-help laws, so I skimmed pasts his obligatory tributes to Parkinson and Hofstadter.

Chapter 5: Automate Your Routine
This chapter focuses on the idea of using habits to remove willpower from the productivity equation. This is a topic that Scott has tackled in a previous eBook and a popular series of articles. Here’s the thing: Scott’s the de facto expert on this concept. If you’ve read his habit material before, you won’t find much new in this chapter. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. Either way: there’s no filler here.

Chapter 6: Productivity Hacks
This chapter focuses on more outlandish moves to boost productivity. A lot of the ideas here are rewarmed Tim Ferriss, from outsourcing to batching. I don’t blame Scott. He makes it clear that he’s collecting the “best” ideas, not necessarily just those he thought up, and Tim certainly contributed some advice worth hearing. If you’ve read 4HWW you’ll skim about 30% of this chapter, if you haven’t, you’ll find some cool ideas. In terms of new material, I like his advice to “avoid lazy people” and “seek exponential payoffs.” Other advice, however, such as “sensory deprivation” (remove distractions), seems redundant with earlier chapters.

Chapter 7: Doing the Right Work
This chapter focuses on finding the right things to work on. This meta-idea is important in itself, and the actual ideas that support it contain a few gems. His focus on measuring results and turning attention toward accomplishment, in particular, are crucial. I also enjoy his reference to Jim Collin’s Hedgehog, which I didn’t know about, but seems to echo my strong belief in the power of focus.

The Look and Feel

I have to give Scott credit, the layout of the eBook is beautiful. It’s optimized for being viewed on a screen, which is nice for a lot of people. I worry, however, that the complexity of the background thwarts those who want to print the pages without burning through a full cartridge of ink. I also noticed that in my PDF viewer (kpdf on linux), the letter “i” disappeared whenever it followed an “f”? Strange. But it might just be my setup.

Who Should Buy This Book

If you’re looking for a coherent system, this book is not for you. Similarly, if you’re an obsessive reader of productivity blogs, you’ll be frustrated with the lack of new ideas.

On the other hand, if you feel stressed, or if you feel should be accomplishing more, or if you’re new to the world of productivity blogs and are eager to soak up as much as possible, then I think this eBook is worth the $10. It’s a smart review of some of the smartest productivity ideas floating around on the web. You’ll come away with at least a few new strategies to add to your personal arsenal of life hacks.

My bottom line: If you’re hungry for advice, spend the $10. If you feel like you’ve seen it all before, take a pass.

Buying the Book

There’s two ways to buy this book. If you click on the first link, a portion of the cost will be shared with Study Hacks to help support what we do here. If this makes you uncomfortable, or if just you plain don’t like me, click on the second link which ensures that I see nothing.

17 thoughts on “Book Review: The Little Book of Productivity

  1. Jordan says:

    This info seems more organized than most productivity books. My copy of GTD was too confusing so I sold it. In reading the first chapter I really like the perspective. Great find.

  2. Study Hacks says:

    This info seems more organized than most productivity books. My copy of GTD was too confusing so I sold it.

    I hear you on that. I took me several passes to get a handle on GTD…

  3. Ola says:

    Another good post. I like that rather than having to spend time looking at yet another person’s productivity tips (not that they’re necessarily unhelpful themselves), you’ve summarized it so I can get the gist and apply these things or reinforce them in my mind if I’ve already heard them before. You’ve touched on an important notion: the cult of productivity. Some people have ten different sites which they often go to for help with productivity, but it’s that very tendency to always be looking in different places for help that can keep one from actually achieving their goals. Study Hacks is the *only* site I look at in terms of balancing different aspects of life, and that probably helps me in actually DOING so.

  4. David says:

    Some redundancy — inevitably — lurks in these pages. Tips on “time-boxing” and “sprinting theory” both emphasize the same point: work in scheduled chunks of time.

    I’m not inclined to see time-boxing as redundent with your term time-blocking. I haven’t read the book and thus I don’t know how Scott uses the term, but in general “time-boxing” is a term used by Steve Pavlana (whom Scott has often referred to in his blog). I wouldn’t be surprised if it means similar things in each instance (I’ll assume that it does). If not, it was just a coincidence that Scott used the same term or he just doesn’t define it like Steve does.

    You’re right in that both involve working in blocks of time, but they differ slightly. My understanding of tIme-boxing, as Steve Pavlana talks of it is scheduling blocks of time without regard to how long the task will actually
    take
    : As his article says:

    you give yourself a specific amount of time, which you won’t go over, and you simpy do the best job you can within that time.

    As you intend it, Time blocking provides the ability to “Over time…increase your ability to predict how much time work really requires — leading you to start things early enough to get them done without late night pain.” Yours is really a feedback mechanism to ask students to adjust their tasks so that each CAN be completed within a certain time block, Steve’s (and I assume Scott’s as well) don’t aim to get you to complete certain tasks, but to “do the best with what you have” with the goal of providing you with impetus to triage needless things from your schedule more ruthlessly.

    The two articles I’ve been citing:



  5. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the review.

    The goal of the book wasn’t to create a complete system. I hint at aspects of a complete system (Weekly/Daily Goals, Simple Organizing System), but no full pieces because I find that readers need to develop their own systems anyways. Detailing my system is only useful if you have my specific lifestyle, which many of you wouldn’t.

    And indeed there are GTD and 4HWW homages in the book. Both are excellent and I highly recommend them. Specifically with the organizing my goal was to simplify what I perceive as being overly descriptive and complicated ideas to their core principles. Leo took a similar angle with Zen To Done, and I’ve taken another look here.

    I’d like to remind everyone that it comes with a 120-day money-back guarantee. So if you’re not sure whether you want to get the book, I suggest trying it out.

  6. Study Hacks says:

    I’d like to remind everyone that it comes with a 120-day money-back guarantee. So if you’re not sure whether you want to get the book, I suggest trying it out.

    I forgot to mention this! As Scott reminds us, he has a very generous return offer, so there really is no risk for trying out this book. So if you’re feeling at all like you’re in a bit of a productivity rut, give it at try.

    The goal of the book wasn’t to create a complete system. I hint at aspects of a complete system (Weekly/Daily Goals, Simple Organizing System), but no full pieces because I find that readers need to develop their own systems anyways.

    As I mention in the review, this is one of the things I like about this book. Instead of trying to give a complete system (that might not be a good fit, or, as a previous commenter notes, be confusing), Scott details the best ideas out there so you can assemble what works for you. As my readers probably recognize, this is very similar to how I discuss building better study habits.

  7. Study Hacks says:

    Yours is really a feedback mechanism to ask students to adjust their tasks so that each CAN be completed within a certain time block, Steve’s (and I assume Scott’s as well) don’t aim to get you to complete certain tasks, but to “do the best with what you have” with the goal of providing you with impetus to triage needless things from your schedule more ruthlessly.

    Good nuance. In the context of procrastination, however, time-boxing (in the Scott/Steve sense) and sprinting-theory both have the same basic purpose of, as you note, not getting caught up in the difficulty of the entire task and just doing a dash of work of a pre-configured length.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    You’ve touched on an important notion: the cult of productivity. Some people have ten different sites which they often go to for help with productivity, but it’s that very tendency to always be looking in different places for help that can keep one from actually achieving their goals.

    Definitely a problem! To be honest, if I knew someone who was just getting exposed to the idea of productivity systems, and the like, I would probably give them a book like Scott’s and say “read this and don’t subscribe to any productivity blogs” (except Study Hacks, of course). In other words, there are only so many ideas out there, Scott captured the main ones, so either you know them, or you learn them from a book like Scott’s, then you get to work!

  9. John says:

    Hey Cal,

    Could you please write a post about how to take notes from a textbook (esp. when you can’t write as much in it as, say, on a paper)? Texts are really dense, and it is hard to consolidate the info…

    Thanks,
    John

  10. Study Hacks says:

    Could you please write a post about how to take notes from a textbook (esp. when you can’t write as much in it as, say, on a paper)? Texts are really dense, and it is hard to consolidate the info…

    I’m not sure that textbooks are anything special when it comes to note-taking. Just follow your favorite approach, be it the Q/E/C method from STRAIGHT-A or the Morse-Code Method. See here for a review:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/05/26/monday-master-class-the-study-hacks-guide-to-note-taking/

  11. Brian says:

    I am thoroughly angered and disgusted by Scott Young. Scott Young should be ashamed of himself for repackaging other peoples ideas. They are trying to make a living off of their ideas, but Scott Young has to steal them, rename them, and call them “mostly” his. They are MOSTLY NOT his, but he is good at thievery and plagiarizing. I’ll give him that.

    With hope,

    Brian

  12. Study Hacks says:

    Scott Young should be ashamed of himself for repackaging other peoples ideas.

    I disagree. Most ideas in the productivity community are shared in the sense that they appear on many different sites. This is what makes the community strong; the best ideas get shared, and polished, and revamped, while the worst drift off. I think Scott is merely capturing the best memes that have been circulating through this world.

  13. Zan says:

    Not sure if anyone noticed this but on page 6 the words “beauty” and “of” are spelled together:
    “The real beautyof timeboxing is that often you will keep working past the timebox.
    Once you’ve built up momentum into a task or project, it is easier to keep working.
    Setting a timebox can be the first push you need to get started.”

  14. Anass says:

    I’ve bought Zen to done by Leo babauta and I found it really cool (It’s more simple that GTD ). By the way if scott’s book is as the same as this one. I would like to get it :D

    Anass

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