Secrets of Productive People

by Mark Forster

Cover image

Publisher: Teach Yourself
Copyright: 2015
ISBN: 1-4736-0885-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 289

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Regular readers of my reviews will know that Mark Forster is my favorite writer on time management and productivity. That's mostly because of his flexible toolkit approach that talks about theory and overall goals and then describes multiple ways to get there, rather than presenting a single system that will solve all your problems. There are a lot of writers who explain productivity tips and tricks or describe systems that work for them. There are fewer who can explain why those tricks work (and why they sometimes don't work), and even fewer who can put them into a meaningful analytical framework for thinking about productivity.

Forster has several books, but they're a mixed bag. His clearest and most coherent book prior to this one was Do It Tomorrow. Secrets of Productive People is organized differently, chopped up in to small bite-sized chunks with synopses to an extent that it felt a bit choppy to me, but apart from that it's the closest I've seen to an updating of Do It Tomorrow. His other books can be slight (The Pathway to Awesomeness) or downright weird (How to Make Your Dreams Come True). I still have a soft spot for Do It Tomorrow, and I like how it was organized a bit better than this one, but I think Secrets of Productive People has become my new recommendation for where to start with Forster.

Secrets of Productive People is divided into five sections: The basics of productivity, the productive attitude, productive projects, aids to productivity, and productivity in action. Each part is divided into several small chapters, which open with a generous helping of quotes about some productivity topic (and I'm going to go back and save some of those), present some easily-digestible related set of thoughts (usually with an exercise), and conclude with a summary. Each chapter is about the length of a long blog post. I think this structure interferes with developing an idea at greater length, but it does make for good reading material in an environment where you're regularly interrupted or only have five or ten minutes.

I think I've mentioned in every review that Forster won me over by being willing to talk about the problems with attempting to do too much, not just presenting a system to allow one to accomplish more. Some other books, such as David Allen's famous Getting Things Done, seem to assume you already know what you need to get done, or will easily be able to figure that out when you think for a while, and just need a system to manage all the things you've decided to do. Forster takes the opposite approach, and this book is the clearest yet on this point: most productivity problems are not from being insufficiently efficient, but from doing the wrong things and too many things. You don't need more time; everyone gets the same amount of time. You need to do the right things with the time you have, and that usually means doing fewer things.

Readers of Forster's previous books will recognize many of the themes here. Some of the techniques from Do It Tomorrow and some of the exercises from Get Everything Done show up again here. But Forster has streamlined and focused the advice, discarded some things, made his task management recommendations less elaborate and more focused, and spends much more time hammering home the point that the only prioritization that really matters is whether you commit to doing something or don't.

The specific task management system he recommends here is one of the variations he's been talking about in his blog and is much simpler than the Do It Tomorrow system: pick five tasks, work on them until you've finished three of them, and then refill to five tasks. I've been using it since reading this book, replacing one of Forster's more elaborate systems from his blog, and it's surprisingly effective. He breaks down in some detail why this works and how to extract additional useful feedback information from it, and now I want to do some of the additional exercises he describes. (That said, I'm still dubious about his advice to not keep any larger to-do list and only rely on your analysis at the time of refilling the list to decide what to do. I use this system with a supplemental, longer list of ideas for future tasks, and that works better for me, although I do have to fight forming a sense of obligation about the things on the longer list. David Allen still has a point that if you don't write down a complete inventory of the things you're worrying about, your brain will try to obsess over them to keep from forgetting them.)

The productive projects section told me some things I needed to hear about time commitments. Projects take regular, focused attention, and starting numerous things without giving them that attention is much worse than doing far fewer things but doing them regularly and reliably. I think Forster's coaching on focus and persistence is very valuable; the trick, of course, is building up your willpower for it and learning to say no. This is in-line with recent psychological analysis of multi-tasking and its various negative effects. The working to-do list capped at five things provides enough variety to mentally shift gears if one runs out of steam on some specific project while maintaining enough focus to not leave things behind half-done.

The productivity aids section provides a more random collection of tips and tricks, many of which I've seen before in his previous books. I've mostly not tried these, so can't say much about how effective they are, but Forster's ideas almost always sound interesting and plausible.

I thought the weakest part of the book was the last section, on applied productivity. Here, Forster takes various life areas (exercise, parenting, finances, writing, etc.) and talks about how the principles of this book can be applied to them. Each area could be a book in itself, and the short essay format of these chapters doesn't do justice to large topics. The result is a rather repetitive section that just stresses analysis, metrics, and repeated, focused attention — all valid points, but ones you can pick up from the previous chapters. I don't think these case studies added much value.

Do It Tomorrow is still my favorite Forster book to read, but I think Secrets of Productive People is now the best and most polished overview of his time management and productivity approach. If you're interested in this topic and not already sick of Forster from my previous recommendations, this would be a great place to start. I got a lot out of it even with all the time management reading I've previously done, and will probably re-read sections of it and try more of the exercises.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-12-31

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