What is this post about?
I have recently tried to increase my productivity. While there are tons of guides out there that promise to increase your productivity 10x overnight most of them seem full of empty promises and don’t even define what it is they actually promise to improve. Due to this absence of a clear concept, many of these tips and tricks optimize a rather local and short-termist perspective of productivity that might be intuitive but is in my opinion not optimizing your true long-term goal.
In this blog post, I want to do three things: a) Present a definition of productivity to make it easier to evaluate what makes sense and what doesn’t, b) provide a lot of framing, i.e. ways to think about productivity, and c) give a summary of the existing literature about the tips and tricks that can improve our everyday workflow in a sustainable fashion.
For this post, I have read a lot of resources on productivity and I think that the vast majority of them is actually pretty bad. So before I get to the ones that I can recommend, I first want to point out which ones you should avoid and why. First on the anti-recommendation list are shortlists such as “10 tips to increase your productivity”. They are usually lacking crucial contextualization or focus on the wrong notion of productivity (see Definition below) and thus won’t stick very long or can even be counter-productive. Secondly, there are three books which I would advise not to read. They are “Eat that Frog”, “7 habits of highly effective people” and “Getting Things Done - the art of stress-free productivity”. I found that all of them are 5% signal and 95% noise and their most important messages could have been summarized on 5 to 10 pages respectively. Ironically, a book that supposedly tells you how to save time inflates its content by out-of-context quotes, analogies that don’t even support their point, personal stories that also don’t support their argument, pseudo-scientific explanations which broadly support their claim , and incredibly lengthy descriptions of ideas that can be entirely described in one short sentence (maybe they had to hit a page count). They are not entirely without useful content though and a summary of the 5% signal can be found further down this blog post.
While the just-described resources were surprisingly bad, there were two that I found very good and I can fully recommend them to anyone interested in productivity. The first one is “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. I found the approach to productivity as presented in that book way more realistic, the explanations were more reasonable and the long-term goal more plausible. Instead of pretending that you “just had to follow this magic rule to get immediate and tangible results”, James Clear shows how marginal gains accumulate over time and how you can improve your habits bit by bit to get closer to a predefined goal. The second resource I can whole-heartedly recommend is “The Replacing Guilt Series” which mostly focuses on the mental aspects of productivity with a special emphasis on guilt. The author, Nate Soares, gives a detailed account of how many human behaviors associated with productivity are driven by guilt and argues why it is a bad and ultimately ineffective motivator.
The following is a mix of my own considerations on productivity, a restructured summary of the good resources, and the content that is not noise of the bad ones. I personally have used some of the habits for years and am completely new to others. When I recommend something it doesn’t mean I have already mastered it, just that I think it is worth attempting and am taking my first steps in that direction. Improving one’s productivity is a journey and I am very much at the beginning of my own.
This blog has become rather long and I would recommend reading it in blocks or parts.
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Table of Contents
The image that I had in my head when I intuitively thought about productivity was very much based on a short-term satisfaction of emotions. It was one where I got up in the morning, immediately started working, my hands flying over the keyboard solving task after task and ticking all boxes on my todo-list (Basically like this video. After an entire day of work, I go to bed filled with satisfaction since I have completed so many tasks and look forward to repeating the same process in the following days. While this is slightly exaggerated, people I have spoken to have a similar intuition. However, I think that this framing has three major problems: a) It is clearly not realistic. Your body has limits and most tasks are actually complicated. If you are just ticking boxes all day, you should look for harder problems to solve. b) It focuses on the wrong target. The just described intuition implicitly focuses on the emotional satisfaction from ticking boxes but does not measure the actual outcome of your work. You can tick boxes all day and feel good about it without actually getting anything done and, inversely, you can get a lot done by asking one simple question to the right person even though this might not feel emotionally appealing at all. Ticking boxes can be a good way to measure progress, you just have to make sure you aren’t reward hacking by making boxes just to tick boxes. c) It is too short-termist. While it definitely feels nice to ride on the emotional high for a while this definition doesn’t ask simple yet important questions like “How long can you endure this kind of behavior?” or “Is it actually the optimal way to reach a long-term target?”.
In contrast, I want to propose a different view of productivity which might be more boring but captures the desired aspects better. I define productivity as the sum of outcomes that can be attributed to your actions over time. Because this sounds very abstract, I want to elaborate on the three main components.
Firstly, it focuses on outcomes, not on the amount of time spent on something. While you will, on average, get a better outcome if you invest more time this doesn’t mean we should use it to quantify productivity. If I am able to solve one homework exercise in an hour but my friend solves three in the same time span, I would say they are more productive than I am. I would even support this claim in extreme cases. Assume, for example, there is scientist A who works all their life to solve a particular problem but never achieves it. One day scientist B looks at the problem, thinks about it for 5 minutes, and solves it. Then we intuitively think that scientist A has worked really hard and it would be unfair to claim that scientist B was more productive. But if we compared machine A which makes 1 widget per hour and machine B which makes 1000 widgets per hour, there would be no doubt that machine B is more productive. Similarly, scientist B got more done in less time and should thus be seen as more productive. I also think that most people in real life already agree with the notion that productivity is not equal to the strength of the intention or time put into the process. If you had an employee that works 80 hours a week with the best intentions but gets done only half as much as another person who only works 40 hours you would promote the second, not the first one. I think the reason why our intuitive notion of productivity is so strongly associated with time spent on a problem is that it’s a good proxy for effort, and we hope more effort should lead to a better outcome. However, especially when time spent and quality of outcome are at odds, e.g. when you sleep less to spend more time on a project but can’t concentrate, it is important to remember that the true target is not time spent but outcome achieved.
The second component is the attribution to your actions. I think that this is the weakest link of my definition because it is very hard or impossible to assign credit for the causal contribution of everyone working towards a product. Maybe your contribution is only possible because someone else did research before you or maybe a product could only be made because two individuals worked together but would be impossible if either of them was missing. However, the goal of this post is to think about a concept and not to derive a universally optimal measurement for productivity so I don’t think having a perfect mathematical solution for credit assignment is really necessary. The reason why I include the attribution component in the first place is to widen the intuitive notion of productivity away from putting your head down and do disciplined work alone. If the best way to achieve a goal is to ask someone else then this should be seen as the most productive option. If the best way to achieve an outcome is to call five different people and get them in a room together (assuming they otherwise wouldn’t) then this should be seen as the most productive option. If the best way to achieve an outcome for an entire group is to delegate most subtasks so everyone can focus on their area of expertise this should be seen as the most productive option. I think it’s just important to acknowledge that productivity shouldn’t only be confined to things that you directly made but also through more vague decisions you took. Perhaps ironically, this can also mean that sometimes the most productive action is to acknowledge that you are the wrong person to create an outcome and communicate that or outsource the task to someone better suited.
The third component is that of time. I think this directly follows from the outcome-orientation of my definition. If you want to produce as much outcome as possible there is no reason to work like crazy now, burn out, and repeat. Rather you should work as much as you can sustain over a long period of time. Of course, you can also balance this with other interests. I don’t suggest your life should be entirely focused on work.
In economics “a productivity measure is expressed as the ratio of an aggregate output to a single input or an aggregate input used in a production process, i.e. output per unit of input, typically over a specific period of time.” (see US Bureau of labor statistics or Wikipedia). This shows that at least on a society-wide comparison it makes sense to think of output over time as the true target rather than time spent in itself.
While thinking about productivity I found that endurance sports are a fitting analogy and help to make some aspects clearer. Both endurance sports and productivity are limited by physical constraints. There is a certain amount you can do per week and it is probably less than the amount of time you are awake. Both are trainable and require active effort for improvements. Getting rid of our bad habits, improving our work routines, changing our frame of mind, and reducing our procrastination are all skills that don’t come overnight. Rather, similar to sports, you have to get better step by step but will likely see tangible improvements over time once you put in some effort. Especially endurance sports require the correct pacing and so does productivity. If your goal was to run a marathon you wouldn’t start sprinting from the start line and similarly, if you wanted to reach a long-term goal and start by working 80 hours a week you will very likely not keep up that effort. Lastly, different strategies for training show different effectiveness. In sports, you can overtrain or you can train for the wrong task, e.g. only doing sprints while training for a marathon, and will thus likely not reach your goal even if you trained a lot. Similarly, you can “work hard” all day in inefficient ways and thus not achieve the actual target goal.
Before we get into the details of implementation, I think it is very important to further frame what productivity is and especially how we should think about it to actually achieve more in less time without feeling shitty.
Intuitively, most people have at least two mostly separated drawers in their heads. One is for work things and one is for life things. When they think of productivity they apply this concept only to the work drawer, e.g. to create more output in the same amount of time or to work less with constant output. Once they are in life-mode they ignore the concepts of productivity they have applied to their work and essentially waste their free time by achieving their non-work-related goals in very inefficient manners. The easiest way for me to think about the vague idea of productivity is that it is a tool to reach certain goals faster or in a more sustainable way and you can apply this tool to your personal life as well. If you want to learn a new language or instrument, lead a healthier lifestyle, exercise more, etc., why shouldn’t you apply the same techniques that improve your work-productivity and make positive habits stick? You will have more free time that you can then use to learn something new or start another personal project. Even if your goal fro free time is to chill or to experience some kind of stimulation, it still makes sense to think about the different ways to achieve that. I have spent a way too much time with hobbies that didn’t even make me very happy just because I didn’t really think about what the goal of my free time was.
Of course, you have to specify a goal for your productivity. If your hobby is making clothes with the goal of having more clothes the most productive option would be to drop the hobby and buy clothes. If your goal is to learn a skill, do a relaxing activity or just have fun then you should keep on sewing.
The other common misconception I have often seen is that productivity is only achieved when you work 80 hours a week without ever getting distracted or needing a break. This is clearly unrealistic and having such an expectation will set you up for an unfruitful journey full of pain and disappointment. This is similar to setting yourself the goal to not only run a marathon but break the world record on the first attempt. A more healthy way to think about productivity is in terms of a tool that optimizes processes of your choice. If you want you can try to work 80 hours a week but you might first want to start with increasing your output during a classic 40-hour workweek or keep similar output while working less time. You can then adapt once you’re there but you wouldn’t start your marathon preparation with 10 sessions per week.
Another belief that seems to be pretty sticky is that productivity necessitates suffering. No pain, no gain. If you don’t feel shitty for 8 hours every day, 40 hours every week, and 160 hours every month, you just weren’t “truly” productive. This is once again clearly false. If you measure productivity via output there is no reason to feel bad while getting there. I would even argue that you are doing something wrong if you feel bad the majority of your productive time. Either because you strive for a goal that you ultimately don’t believe to be worth it, because your current strategy is very ineffective and you know it deep-down or because you are uncertain about what it actually is that you are working towards. If you always feel bad while working towards a particular goal it might be about time to ask yourself whether the goal you are currently persuing is actually worth it. I would say if productivity is done correctly, it should be a positive experience for the majority of the time. Obviously, you still sometimes have to do annoying or boring tasks but when you work towards a worthy goal following a strategy that is as efficient as your current level of productivity allows for, it should be a neutral or positive experience. I would also say that the result feels more satisfying when you are more productive since you free up time and have spent less time with annoying tasks along the way.
Guilt is a bad motivator for many reasons! “The Replacing Guilt Series” makes this argument in way more detail and I can recommend checking it out. Firstly, guilt is often external. You feel guilty because you are afraid of not meeting social expectations and that you could disappoint your friends, parents, or society at large by not meeting a goal that you don’t even truly believe in. Secondly, even if the goals are your own, guilt comes from the absence of an action or result. You feel guilty because you didn’t do something that you think you should have done. However, most of the time you will have multiple things to do and if you don’t get all of them done you will always feel guilty. Even though it was impossible to complete all tasks, to begin with, you will still feel that nagging voice in the back of your head telling you to feel bad because you might have actually done everything if you suddenly evolved superpowers. Guilt doesn’t care whether that’s an unrealistic or even impossible expectation. It comes either way. Ultimately, and I think most importantly, guilt is just a remnant of our monkey brains. It is an emotion designed for immediate survival and reproduction. Evolution takes too long to adapt in the same time spans as human civilization and therefore it is just highly unlikely that guilt is the correct motivation to reach abstract goals in an environment that our system 1 is not at all designed for. It would be way better to use system 2 to think about the process and design it in such a way that our motivation aligns with the overall goal. Implementations will be discussed further down.
Additionally, working yourself rugged is not a virtue. I have for a long time kept the intuition that I would only be productive if I spend literally every minute working towards my goal. Since this is unrealistic and not sustainable over a longer period of time I usually felt guilty. This is once more a weird expectation but I just never really thought about it very clearly. A marathon runner doesn’t train 24/7 because there are physical limits to their body and we wouldn’t say they should feel guilty about resting periods. Since there are also physical and mental limits to the amount of time we can be highly concentrated and productive we should neither feel guilty about taking breaks but even embrace them. Pretending there is no limit is a very effective way to burn yourself out and thereby achieving less of your desired goal in the long-term.
This mantra is the core of James Clears’s book Atomic Habits and I can recommend reading the whole thing if this sounds reasonable to you. In short, you can’t realistically expect to change your productivity overnight because your habits are usually very sticky. Think of it as a never-ending journey where you change one bad habit at a time. While the gain over every short period of time seems small, marginal gains accumulate and yield large effects over longer time spans. If you were to pick up running, you wouldn’t expect to see immediate gains after a week but rather that you would slowly improve over time if you keep training regularly using the correct strategy. For productivity it’s similar. Instead of training your muscles, you train your mind by slowly changing your current routines to their more desirable versions.
Even though I have defined productivity via output over time and it makes sense to reason about productivity like that in the abstract it is not necessarily action-guiding. James Clear suggests that one should not try to run a marathon but strive to become a runner. Instead of writing a book, one should intend to become a writer. I find it most intuitive to describe this by saying “Be Bayesian about your goal”. If you have identified a goal, e.g. running a marathon, you should think about the underlying process that would generate an individual that fulfills that goal. Which habits and beliefs would that individual have and which actions would it take? Once this is clear, try to become that individual - take on that identity. This way of thinking has many advantages. Firstly, it detaches your behavior from the explicit goal. While this sounds counterintuitive at first, it makes a lot of sense. Usually, your specified goal, e.g. to run a marathon is part of an overarching goal, e.g. become fitter and more healthy. Your identity is usually connected closer to the overarching goal than the specified goal and therefore more appropriate. What if, for example, the marathon was canceled? If you focus on your specified goal your project is over, if you focus on the identity you are still a runner and keep training. Secondly, identity keeps you going. People are ultimately very tribal. Being part of an identity is rewarding because it unlocks all the bonus features from being part of that tribe. A true runner has a peer group that is connected through running. They follow important people in the sport on Twitter, share running memes with each other, and dress in ways that clearly identify them as a runner. If it’s part of your identity it’s harder to give up on the way and more likely you keep at it once your initial goal is done, e.g. to stick with running and keeping a healthy lifestyle even after the first marathon is finished. Lastly, the identity-based approach is more achievable. Slowly aligning your identity is way more gradual and can be done in small steps whereas having one goal is binary and far into the future. This means you have a simple and easy path to follow which makes it more likely you stick to it and ultimately achieve the goal of being a fit and healthy person.
This cuts both ways though. Once your identity is attached to something it also becomes harder to stop it for good reasons. Thus you have to make sure that the goal is truly desirable before you start connecting it to your identity.
The outcome-focused definition of productivity and the identity-approach of achieving it are not inconsistent. It is just a two-step process. First, we need to think hard about the long-term goal that we want to achieve and then maximize the chance of achieving it by “tricking” our monkey brains into the right actions. Ultimately, we have to work with what’s available.
Under my definition of productivity as maximizing the expected outcome, we will have to accept a less narrow and short-termist perspective of productivity than we might find intuitive. A deadline-oriented approach to productivity, where you work less than possible for a long period and much more than possible when the deadline is close, is not very productive under this definition. These high-intensity efforts with all-nighters and lots of caffeine are not only prone to producing errors or being careless because of the time pressure, but they also require long recovery periods after the deadline is over which usually means that you are in fact performing worse on your long-term goal of e.g. academic improvements. If you want to run a marathon you should optimally pace all 42 kilometers exactly the same and we would all agree that it is inefficient to sprint every 10k for a short period before setting a lower pace for recovery. Deadline mode is the same. Consistency is key for productivity even if it might not generate the same feeling as going all out from time to time. But I would rather be boring and get stuff done than feeling hyped without results and I’m pretty sure your supervisor would want that too.
Playing the long game also has implications on the exploration vs. exploitation tradeoff. Intuitively, we want to do something and see results (maybe that’s just me) even though it is probably not the most efficient way to achieve your long-term or even short-term goal. Most problems that we face or related ones have been solved by other people before and by exploring their strategies, following their advice, and investigating their bottlenecks we are, on average, faster at the result. To me, a day of reading papers always feels less productive than coding, writing, running experiments, etc. even though it is probably more productive objectively. This is not only true in the short-term settings of an individual project but also in the larger scheme of things. Education often felt a bit unproductive to me since you are not making a product or doing something that changes the world meaningfully you just sit and learn. However, education creates productivity capital that is worth much more in the long run. If an individual isn’t educated (You can also get educated outside of university. I use education as a term for knowledge generation in general) they can work as hard as they want but probably wouldn’t be able to solve really complex problems like creating a vaccine, building complex algorithms or improving society in other ways because they simply lack the fundamental understanding of their field. Simply understanding and acknowledging this fact is already important. It means that after a day of reading background papers or during university you can overwrite the guilt generated by your system 1 for “being unproductive” with the knowledge of your system 2 that you are in fact productive even though the results will only be seen years down the line.
Whether you are productive or not often depends to a large extent on the environment you are in. Many people go to the library to study for their exam or have a room dedicated specifically for work because this clear separation seems to envoke different “modes” of thinking. If you are in your bedroom you are in sleep-mode, if you are in your living room you are in chill-mode and the office is for work-mode. James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, uses two anecdotes to show the extreme of this effect. First, he says that many soldiers who regularly consumed heroin during the Vietnam war became clean overnight when returning to the US. Just the fact that war-mode was off and family-mode was on again seemed to have completely changed their drug consumption. Secondly, prisoners who are released early because they have shown years of regular and good behavior in prison often fall back to crime at astonishingly high rates. A possible explanation for this would be that their environment completely changes overnight and so do their habits. In prison, they have actually worked on themselves, tried to become a better person, and gradually turned on their good-citizen-mode. Unfortunately, this mode is very much associated with the environment of the prison environment itself and as soon as they go back to the surroundings that lead them to commit crimes in the first place they are back in their crime-mode. While these are only anecdotes and both described scenarios are much more complex in reality we can all intuitively agree that our surroundings have an effect on our productivity. Thus we should use this information whenever possible to reduce our probability to procrastinate. If you want to exercise just putting on sports clothes is often already enough to get in workout-mode and the rest follows nearly alone. If you want to study, search a spot that doesn’t induce chill-mode, eat-mode, or game-mode and it will be much easier to execute.
After the framing section, I hope it has become easier to think clearly about productivity. However, this alone doesn’t get us anywhere, we still have to implement changes in our lives to achieve our goals more effectively. This is what this section is concerned with. While many of the tips and tricks seem intuitive and obvious it is important to keep in mind that they are designed for our monkey brain. Just because we agree that they are good and obvious doesn’t mean that we already apply them. Often we do just the opposite, we don’t apply them but once we are asked about them, we pretend we do because “we would be dumb not to”. There is no shame in accepting that our brains like short-term gratification and that we have very limited bandwidth. There is no reason to feel bad that you don’t have the mental fortitude to resist distractions and procrastination all the time. Rather we should observe that they exist and design systems around us such that they account for the architecture of our brains.
I have broadly ordered the following items according to my perceived importance and will try to justify that ranking along the way.
If you are physically or mentally unhealthy, you are significantly less likely to fulfill your productivity potential and achieve your goals. If you consistently don’t sleep enough you won’t function well and thus be less productive (I have written another post on sleep). If you are constantly too busy to go to the doctor for routine checks and then develop a condition that removes you from being productive for a month you are in sum less productive. The same is true for mental conditions. If you get burned out after being drowned with work for a longer period of time you will have to take a break that usually means you could have been more productive and less stressed when working a consistent amount over the entire period. A healthy body and mind are not trade-offs to your productivity, they are necessary conditions for it.
To which extent you want to optimize your personal health is up to personal preference but I mostly want to emphasize that you won’t get away with neglecting it. I personally try to follow an 80/20 approach where I broadly try to eat healthily, exercise around 2 times a week, and care about my sleep. This way I make sure that I prevent the majority of negative consequences but still have a lot of time doing other stuff. I am fully aware though, that I could improve these conditions with more time and effort but am not willing to because the marginal gains do not justify the spent time given my specific preferences. However, this trade-off could look different for you and it is important to think about it before reading further because it will determine how much time you are willing to allocate for your different activities.
If you really want to min-max your exercise vs. productivity trade-off then burpees might be for you. I was told that doing two minutes of burpees twice a day will reduce your risk of cardio-vascular diseases significantly and it trains relevant core muscles to prevent conditions such as back pain. I haven’t really applied this consistently yet so I can’t speak from experience.
Most people spend around 8 hours per working day sitting in front of their computer. Making this experience as productive as possible and reducing the possibility of long-term injuries is key to a sustainable solution. If you are susceptible to back pain or see a risk of a back injury in the future get a good chair. If you are susceptible to wrist pain invest in an ergonomic mouse and keyboard. If you are unable to sit for a long time invest in a desk that is adjustable for height. Under any circumstance get noise-canceling headphones - they are great. Even if buying high quality seems excessively expensive in the beginning a small back-of-the-envelope calculation shows otherwise. Let’s say you spend 3000€ on a chair, desk, mouse, and keyboard (which is likely much more than necessary) and it reduces the risk of either wrist or back injury by 50 percent. Not being able to work for one month has the opportunity cost of your salary and greater additional cost to the public health care system. If we assume that you earn twice the minimum wage in your office job you have 20€ * 160 = 3200€ available per month before taxes. A serious back or wrist injury can make you unable to work for much longer than two months which already makes this a worthy investment (I calculate with pre-tax numbers because you can deduct office supplies from your taxes). In any case, your state should send you a medal as you have saved them much more than just 3000€ in costs for your treatment. Additionally, you will get high-quality office equipment at a lower price already and therefore make this trade-off worth even earlier. Furthermore, you should talk to someone who has chronic back pain from bad equipment to make the abstract harm of “chronic pain” salient to your monkey brain. Once you hear an account of what chronic pain actually entails you will probably rush to the next furniture store.
Further useful equipment is lighting. I can recommend turning on night mode on your computer which adapts the color temperature according to the time of day. I also found that I feel more productive and have fewer headaches when I use daylight lamps in general.
Also, make sure that you have good air in your room and move from time to time. Either by just walking around in your office or by taking a quick walk outside. Usually this helps me to collect and sort my thoughts.
The last recommendation is to surround yourself with other productive people. Working in a group of people where everyone seems to be naturally productive is one of the easiest ways for me to stay focused for a long period of time. However, this cuts both ways. If the group of choice is procrastinating you are more likely to do so too. As long as you make clear that the explicit goal of the group is to work without distraction this is a good collective nudging mechanism.
We often work hard without really knowing which goal we want to achieve. Even though we have a rough idea, e.g. a desire to be a fitter person, we rarely sit down and explicitly say what that actually means. It could mean running every day or just twice a week. If our goal is to just stay in shape and reduce the risk of health issues the latter is probably sufficient. If it is to find a new purpose in life the former might work better. So when you start a new project the first step should always be to clearly identify the goal. This should be done very explicitly, e.g. by sitting down and writing the goal on a piece of paper to make sure you aren’t taking any shortcuts.
The clarity of the goal is important for multiple reasons. Firstly, you can only optimize a process when you know what the outcome is supposed to be. You can only find the fastest path up a mountain once you know which mountain you want to climb. Secondly, if the goal is clear it is way easier to identify which actions actually lead to that goal and which don’t so you can prioritize easier. Thirdly, it provides psychological comfort. The uncertainty of not exactly knowing where you’re heading manifests in a small but noticeable nagging in the back of your head that low-key annoys you all the time.
While all of this sounds intuitive, at least I (but probably others too), have wasted a lot of time due to unclear goal setting. There were multiple times when I picked up something or tried to pick up some skill for - in retrospect - pretty weird reasons. I wanted to learn how to hack even though I had absolutely no use case or a desire to be a hacker. I wanted to learn how to do a front lever even though it is far beyond any fitness level I reasonably want to invest time in to hold. But through these examples, I think it becomes particularly clear why identifying a goal is so important. Once I started training for the front lever or watching youtube videos about hacking I slowly started to realize that these are goals that I ultimately don’t want to pursue if it means investing time that I could have spent in other things that are more important to me. I then often realize that the reasons for why I started that activity is not my own but rather a vague desire to be cool or to belong to a certain group. When I think about this notion more intensely I then realize that I don’t even want to be a person who is cool because they can do a front lever and stop my pursuit. Identifying the goal in the very beginning saves you the hours put into this activity and forces you to ask yourself if that goal is worth it.
Most people have more things they have and want to do than time to do them. There are our personal goals like exercising, reading, and traveling. There are our professional goals such as getting a certain job or rising to a certain position within our profession. And there are seemingly endless small tasks that just have to be done, e.g. reading something, answering e-mails, solving a tech issue, prepare a call or meeting, and so on.
The only sustainable solution is to prioritize - a lot and at all levels. If you have clearly identified your goal (see point above) you can order your TODO-list according to the most important task to achieve this goal. Then you should drop all low-value tasks that can be found at the bottom of your priorities list. We often have a whole range of tasks that keep us busy but do not actually meaningfully advance our goal. So for every task on your list ask “would it be that bad if I just didn’t do it?” and when the answer is yes, drop it. If the answer is “yes, but I don’t want to let down another person” ask yourself if that person would be willing to accept your reasons for why you don’t want to do that task. Most of the time they will understand if you say that you can’t do the task because it doesn’t fit your current goals or you will find a better solution for both. You should have a priorities list on all levels. For your life goals, your monthly goals, and your daily goals and prioritize hard at all levels.
Once your list is finished you should always start with the most important item. Too often we do some low-value task because we are afraid of failing the most important one or some other irrational reason. If it’s the most important one you will have to do it at some point and therefore you should better start early because you are most focused and concentrated in the mornings. Also the earlier you start the more likely you are to finish in time. There just is no good reason not to start with the most important item.
Within a corporate setting, you can ask yourself what your key result areas are or, in other words, what you were hired to do. Just write down all the tasks you do or did up to now and double-check which of them are in your area of expertise and which of them are just things that popped up along the way. Then meet with your manager and discuss all the items that are in contention. Most of the time you will be able to cut a large percentage of your current tasks and focus on your key result areas. Your supervisor should also be happy with that result as they hired you for the areas in which you are good at and due to your specialization you are more likely to yield far greater results in these areas than others. The entire point of specialization is that if everyone is really good in one area then the collective results are greater and more efficient. While I personally like this advice, it is important to stress that not everyone in your company will think similarly and you have to make a judgement call about whether your supervisor is open to such ideas.
At this point, you might ask yourself “If everyone cuts tasks, doesn’t this just mean that less stuff gets done overall?”. To which the answer is partly yes and mostly no. Optimally, only those tasks that are truly unnecessary will be cut. And honestly, this happens more often than I thought. Some of the experiments I ran were never designed to yield the results I was truly interested in, some reports are just written to be written and some tasks made sense at the time they were given but are now useless. For many other cases, you have the benefits of specialization. If everyone just focuses on their key area they do less other stuff they aren’t optimally equipped to do to begin with, and thereby prioritization is just a redistribution of individual tasks in a group rather than their removal. And lastly, there are just some tasks that have to be done but nobody is really specialized for, such as community tasks like cleaning the kitchen or re-ordering coffee. In these situations the group has to come together and install a system everyone can agree with, e.g. everyone has to clean the kitchen for a month until the duty is rotated to another person. These are then items on your priorities list even when they don’t completely align with your personal goals or skillset.
Obviously, your priorities are not carved in stone and should be re-evaluated in proportion to their time frame. Monthly goals should be reviewed more often than life goals and so on.
Once you have identified your goals and ordered them according to your priorities you should plan how to achieve them. This should, once again, happen in a top-down process. You start by defining the subgoals of your highest goal, e.g. if you want to write a blog post your subgoals might be to write down your current thoughts and to get a good overview of the existing literature. Then repeat recursively, e.g. define the subgoals of your literature review maybe by splitting them into books, papers, and other people’s blog posts. Once again, we prioritize at all levels by focusing on the most important sub-goal first.
Planing in general, and divide-and-conquer specifically has many advantages. Firstly, having thought through the entire process at least once means that you realize tasks that you might have missed otherwise. Sometimes you need to do a subtask first because it needs a lot of time to finish, such as ordering a specific part that will be custom-made for you. Sometimes you will have to find a date at which multiple otherwise very busy people come together. Secondly, it mitigates the Planning Fallacy. Most of the time our projects end up taking longer than expected because we forget important details or events happen that drag out the process. The more fine-grained your planning process the easier it is to spot these problems and account for them in your time-horizon. If you actually write down your subtasks somewhere instead of having a vague idea of them in your head you might realize that you haven’t really thought this through and more work is necessary to bridge these logical gaps. Lastly, it makes a large and vague task, such as developing a new software package, actionable. Thus it makes it easier to start somewhere and not be overwhelmed by its complexity.
If you are like me some time ago, you will read this and think “This is solid advice for all the dumb people out there, I don’t need this because I can easily keep track of all the relevant tasks, subtasks, and their prioritization in my head because I’m so smart”. To which the only correct answer is “No, you’re not!!!”. If I look at previous projects then I have encountered tons of events that would probably be predictable with more planning and on average projects that involved very careful planning have run significantly smoother than those where I just did everything from the top of my head. There is a reason why we pay architects to plan every single centimeter of a building very carefully and don’t just tell the builders to go with the flow. There is a reason why people in large and successful software companies meet and plan their projects in detail before they start coding. And the reason is not that these people are dumb but rather that they are humans and they have a monkey brain and so do you and me.
Once a project is finished people often jump right into the next one without ever asking simple questions such as “What went well?”, “What went wrong?” and “What things can I improve next time?”. And then they keep on repeating the same mistakes in the next project which costs valuable time and increases their levels of annoyance. So as a consequence one should implement evaluation mechanisms on all levels. After every project, you should ask the simple questions above and write the answers down. You can evaluate the completion of every subtask and thus remove hurdles for the next. Clearly, the more important the task the more time you should spend evaluating it. A subtask doesn’t need a full review, a couple of notes will do the job.
Your own perception is often prone to cognitive biases and therefore, especially in group projects, you shouldn’t rely on your own perception. While asking for feedback from colleagues or friends often feels weird and you have to overcome an inner resistance because you open yourself up to criticism it is very valuable. Often your intuitions of what went well and badly just don’t align with others and knowing the difference is important to plan for future projects. The recommendation here is not only to directly ask people for feedback after projects but additionally to create an image of yourself as “someone who others can approach with feedback”. This means that other people perceive you as someone who is genuinely interested in improvement and they are more likely to open up with you. I have tried to communicate my openness to feedback as much as possible over the last years and I have had some very important insights due to it. Ironically, one of the pieces of feedback I received from multiple independent friends was that while close friends find me very approachable others who know me less don’t think that way at all about me. I would estimate I’m still not there yet but I hope I’m less of a mysterious figure to the people around me than I was, say, 3 years ago. Just knowing that this perception exists was already very important to adapt my actions. Also, I have made it a habit of always encouraging feedback at the top and bottom of my blog posts and I was surprised by the number of messages along the lines of “I usually wouldn’t give feedback but since you explicitly encouraged it, I want to tell you X”. And with very few exceptions this feedback has been really helpful. I was either missing important information or context, unclear in my wording, or incorrect in my assumptions. In short, my experience with getting lots of feedback has lead to many insights for me and I would recommend it very much.
My personal experience is that it is easy to accept that evaluation is important and that feedback helps but very hard to actually do it. Every time again you have to open up your shell and accept that you might have made a mistake or somebody didn’t like something you did. And while this feeling decreases over time it will never quite vanish. But once we rationally accept that feedback and evaluation are important there are ways to act on that belief. The most important one is to make evaluation a habit. If you plan your project, the last stage is not product shipment or publication of the blogpost but rather evaluation. If it is “just part of the process” it is harder to ignore and easier to just do it. The second piece of advice is to emphasize your actions, not your person. Say that “the planning in this project was insufficient” instead of “My planning sucked” to detach your action from your identity (see Mental Tricks section). While this sounds like a contradiction to the “Identity not Outcome” Section, it isn’t. Attaching your identity to a desired goal can be valuable. Attaching it to your past actions isn’t because it prevents you from progress. And lastly, start simple. Train yourself for receiving feedback by asking a person that you trust and know to give constructive feedback in a nice way. Then you will realize that once the initial rush of adrenaline is over you will have new information that is usually useful to have.
This category is related to the Prioritization category from above but still contains new and important advice. Usually, lots of tasks end up on our plate that are not really in our area of expertise. We get e-mails asking us to do something, invites to meetings and groups, and so on. The more important you are the more of these requests you will get. A professor has to deal with hundreds a week while a student might get them just from time to time. In any case, it is important to keep your priorities in mind. Often enough, another person is better equipped to do the task than you are and you should delegate it. Specialization is beneficial for everyone in the system after all if applied correctly.
This advice invites misuse. If I delegate all my tasks I have done everything on my agenda. So before you delegate it you should simply ask “If I were the other person, would I want to take over that task, and is it in my area of expertise?”. Additionally, you should communicate it in this exact way, e.g. “Hey Marius, I have received an offer for collaboration with research group X. I think this is more in your area of expertise than mine. Should I refer them to you?”. Also, if somebody asks you to do something which doesn’t align with your goal or would be very low on your priority list say no. Say no nicely but firmly. Otherwise, it would just linger around forever until you either do it grudgingly or hope the other person forgot about it.
An additional way to outsource parts of your work is through the use of technology. Keeping all different tasks and thoughts in your head without forgetting them costs energy which can’t be used for something else. This includes using a calendar for all tasks, setting alarms for important meetings, and using note taking apps (see Technology Section).
Lastly, I think clear and direct communication improves productivity. This means communicating your priorities to others and asking for clarification when you don’t understand something. I have recently started collaborating with someone from a different research group and she directly told me that our project was one of four projects she was working on, currently placed second in her priorities and hence I could expect her to work around 10 hours per week on the project. This was fantastic. I knew exactly what I could expect and could build my own planning around that. I will try to employ this in the future for myself. Clear communication also means asking clarifying questions even if you feel silly for asking them. In a meeting when the supervisor asks “any questions?” everyone looks around and then doesn’t ask one because often they feel like everyone else has understood it and they would be the odd one out. After the meeting, they then realize that they still have a lot of questions and everything will take forever just because nobody dared to speak up. If you didn’t understand it, you will either have to invest a lot of time explaining it to yourself or ask your supervisor at some point. Both could be easily solved by asking simple questions even if they make you feel silly.
I think most of us have heard some of the above advice before. We have been told to plan and we have been told to evaluate our progress and so forth. And then we were like “yeah yeah”, ignored the advice, and repeated the previous mistakes. Sticking to good habits is hard and adopting new ones is even harder. And one of the reasons why they are hard to follow is because we have to admit that we are imperfect. After all - a perfect version of ourselves wouldn’t need to evaluate their mistakes because they wouldn’t make them to begin with. Our gut response to mistakes is often rationalization instead of investigation. To account for these and further flaws there are a lot of small mental tricks that I want to explain in the following.
The new homunculus is a thought experiment where you imagine that you have just been placed in your body without any history connecting you to your previous self. You start by cleaning up baggage from your previous self, e.g. by dropping the ineffective projects. Then you ask what this person’s (i.e. your) preferences and goals are and steer them towards the right action like you are controlling a robot from within. The important bit is the framing of ignoring the fact that these are your preferences and goals and pretend that they are just somebody’s preferences and goals and that their previous actions and identity is in no way tied to yours.
The 3rd person view is a slightly different but related technique where you ask what action you would recommend another person that is in your position. And very often you will realize that there is a quite obvious option that you somehow didn’t consider as much from your own perspective. If another person asked you “Should I ask questions when I still have them even though I feel dumb doing it” then the answer in most cases is “Yes, most people overestimate how much others care about them and don’t keep a list of questions you asked and judge them according to their silliness”. If someone else asked whether they should plan their next project carefully or just see how it goes along the way then usually you would answer they should. From the 3rd person, a lot of seemingly complex questions have surprisingly simple answers that you can then act upon.
If you have problems with procrastination pretend that your actions are not stoppable. Netflix & YouTube have optimized their algorithms in such a way that you are likely to binge-watch. Once you started it’s hard to stop not because your mental fortitude is low but because the designers of the algorithms know that you have a monkey brain. So if you start an episode, video, or video game don’t think “Just one and then I will be productive” but rather pretend that they aren’t stoppable, e.g. that if you start you will finish all episodes of that series. And then decide whether you want to engage in that activity. This idea stems from a post on Mindingourway where it is described in more detail.
Connect things that you want to do with things that you should do. Just create more or less random connections between the two, e.g. whenever you put something in the microwave you do ten push-ups, or whenever you want to watch Netflix you first have to read 20 pages in a book. Especially when the old activity is a habit already you can extend that habit to also include your new action. So if you have a habit of drinking coffee at 10 am every day then this becomes the habit of doing 5 push-ups and then drinking coffee every day at 10 am.
Related to the above, you should try to find short-term gratification for long-term rewards. Even though you know that future fitness is a reward for running this knowledge just isn’t rewarding on an instinctive level. To bridge the gap you can find all kinds of schemes to reward yourself for keeping up progress towards long-term goals. Whenever you run, treat yourself somehow or use apps like Strava that show your progress and send you nice messages. Even though you know exactly that the app is appealing to your monkey brain it still works wonders.
Choose an accountability partner or create contracts. Tell your partner which goal you are currently trying, e.g. running twice a week, and which punishment you will get if you don’t succeed, e.g. donating 50€ to an effective charity of your choice. Suddenly you have more skin in the game and thus more likely to achieve the goal.
I have too often set myself unrealistic expectations, low-key knowing that they are unrealistic, and then still felt bad when they didn’t come true. I knew that publishing a paper on a major conference before your Ph.D. is very rare and still somewhat expected myself to achieve it, even though there was no good reason to believe that I’m significantly different than other people who have attempted and failed at the same task. It’s like I was running against a wall head first and acted surprised that it hurt.
So whenever you feel like you aren’t meeting an expectation make explicit what that expectation is and then think about whether it is realistic. Ask yourself not whether it would be nice to achieve that goal or whether it would make your family and friends proud if you achieved it but rather ask if an anonymous person with your background and conditions should have realistically set the expectation you set yourself. Most of the time the answer is no. Then reset that expectation as if you would recommend it to someone you care about, e.g. it has to be achievable but not trivial to achieve. Maybe aim for a 50% probability of achieving it.
Pressure and deadlines can be a force of productivity but remember that they are a means to a goal and not the goal in itself. If you made the deadline for a conference paper but your paper still contains flaws you have just contributed more noise to the review process. If your paper explores a worthy idea it will still be around for the next conference and be published when it’s ready. If you are the type of person that flourishes with deadlines, set them for yourself or let them be set by a colleague, e.g. for an internal paper review. But don’t forget that meeting the deadline is not the goal, it is a means to produce a good outcome.
A common tool in expectation management is to reframe your baseline. To steal a fitting analogy from James Clear - Imagine someone is in a wheelchair and you ask them whether the wheelchair restricts their freedom. But they answer that the wheelchair actually gives them freedom. Without it, they would be bound to their home while they can go outside nearly wherever they want due to it. While I always felt that this is just a way to lie to yourself to feel better (after all you are always better off than someone else), it is still true. Very often when you feel like a failure there are tons of people who would switch positions with you without hesitation and there is a large space of situations in which you could be worse off. Instead of only looking at what you could have achieved when all stars align look at what you have achieved under the circumstances you were given.
Setting yourself expectations that you are very unlikely to achieve is a recipe for disaster and so is tying your own self-worth to the achievement of a nearly impossible outcome. It’s terrible for your mental health and it’s not even effective in achieving your goal. If you have trouble setting realistic expectations first talk about it with a trusted friend and work on solutions or seek professional help. You are not a failure if you don’t achieve everything you ever set your mind to and people in your surroundings won’t think of you as such. Please get help and save yourself the long periods of self-doubt and depression if you have set yourself too high expectations in the past.
Many of us experience guilt when we are not productive. We might experience guilt when we procrastinate, when we take breaks, when we don’t work over the weekends, and so forth. In the Framing section of this post, I have already argued why guilt is a bad motivator and follow this up here with some ways to deal with guilt.
The first technique is what is called come to your terms by Mindingourway. Whenever you realize that you feel guilty make very explicit what you feel guilty for, e.g. “I feel guilty for taking a break instead of working”. Then realize the trade-off that you are making and formulate it explicitly, e.g. “I valued the break higher than the productivity from work”. In the final step, you have to come to your terms. You have to think whether this trade-off is correct and whether you think you acted on the preferred side of the trade-off. You could either say “I value my break higher because I need to rest and regain focus” or “I should have valued working higher because I actually didn’t need a break”. Both are possible and valid options. It is important to make this trade-off explicit because as we have discussed in the framing section whenever there is a trade-off there will be guilt since guilt occurs due to the absence of achieving a certain goal.
The second technique is called Having no excuses and is a tool to prevent you from rationalizing guilt. Whenever you feel guilty there is a spark of truth to it since you traded something off. When you have chosen to take a break there is a possibility that you could have worked on and thus been more productive. Once you have committed to a specific choice you often start generating excuses and to rationalize your choice - “You must take the break because everyone has to take breaks from time to time or because during breaks you always experience a burst of creativity and thus can be more productive in the future”. Note that while this might be true it is just a post-hoc justification for your action and likely didn’t follow a set of rules that were specified before the decision was taken, e.g. “take a 10 min break whenever you feel tired”. So rather than allowing yourself to generate post-hoc justifications for your actions, Nate Soarez[Soares], the author of mindingourway.com, argues that you should treat guilt as an indicator. Whenever you feel guilty observe that you do - like a scientist observes their experimental results. Then treat the action as a bet - either you took the bet at the right odds and would take it again even if it didn’t work out this time or you took the bet at the wrong odds and you would act differently in the future.
An important part of productivity that I have already touched upon in the Playing the Long Game framing section is that it is often important to build up productivity capital that feels unproductive at the moment but will unlock higher productivity later.
The first piece of advice in this category is one of mental framing. It basically says that you should assume a) that you will never be done with learning. There is more knowledge than you can ever comprehend and you can’t ever pretend to have actually mastered your field. So be intellectually modest about your actual knowledge and willing to update. b) You can probably learn most skills if you put your mind to it. You can learn to code, cook, or paint if you are willing to put in the time that it takes to develop the skill. Don’t pretend you are “not a math person” or “just not made for cooking” or develop an attitude that stops you from trying. You can still make the choice not to try something or you can realize that you don’t have a talent for e.g. dancing, but you shouldn’t restrict by pretending it was impossible to pick up that skill. c) Be willing to update your beliefs and seek to improve your skills rather than rely on your current level. If you are done studying you can still read papers in your field or visit seminars to keep up with the research. Doing so will make you smarter and also more valuable as a prospective employee.
The second piece of advice is about which skills to improve. There are far more things we could learn than we have time to and so we have to choose wisely. On the first level, one should improve the skills that will likely be necessary for one’s entire career. In my case, as a researcher in ML, I will probably always need math and coding. So it makes sense to practice linear algebra, probability calculus and solve coding puzzles. On the second level, you should sharpen your analytic toolbox. This might be through listening to podcasts like Rationally Speaking which gives you knowledge about very different fields while also teaching you intellectual curiosity and epistemic modesty. There is a long list of things you can do to improve your analytic skills ranging from watching documentaries over reading books to talking to smart people and I think you will start to pick them up along the way once you assume the mental framing from above and walk through life eager to learn more.
Most people struggle with procrastination. Instead of working towards a goal you watch a YouTube video or do something else that isn’t productive. And I only found one piece of advice that really made sense to me. Accept that you have a limited attention span. Accept that you will at some point procrastinate. Make it part of your routine. You could have 75 min productive sessions followed by 15 minutes of a break or 30-minute sessions with 5-minute breaks just to give some examples. Furthermore, procrastinate actively not passively. Use procrastination periods to follow a secondary or tertiary goal of yours. Watch a video that teaches you something about that goal, listen to a podcast, or write on your next blog post. I found that procrastination mostly feels bad because you feel like you are completely wasting your time with something utterly useless. Procrastinating actively mitigates this feeling because you are doing something that furthers a goal of yours.
Related to that point is the topic of multitasking. I know we all like to pretend we can multitask but we also know that we just can’t do it. Our brain isn’t made to do multiple tasks well at once and you will achieve less if you try. Be honest with yourself and accept it won’t work even if you try hard. Then design your workflow to always focus on one task at a time and don’t switch around all the time.
Technology isn’t inherently good or bad. If used correctly it can increase your productivity by a lot and help you with achieving a task. If applied incorrectly it will distract you and reduce your output. The best practices I have found included a) remove distractions as much as possible. Mute your phone and mute incoming emails. Whenever you want to focus close all programs that make you reachable. Messages basically never have to be responded to immediately. b) Use technology to do the things your brain is bad at. Outsource your thoughts, organize your planning, and track your behavior. This will make you less prone to bias and reduce the cognitive load of things you have to remember in parallel. Lastly, c) don’t spread over too many devices and programs. If you have multiple different note-taking apps, calendars, etc. they lose their purpose.
I have tried a lot of different ways to organize my notes in the last five years. I have tried note-taking apps on my smart phone, paper and physical notebooks and google docs. And I never really stuck with any of them consistently. Then around a year ago an app called Roam Research was hyped among my friends. Given my bad experiences with note-taking apps I was sceptical at first but was then convinced to try it after a long introductory session with a friend. I have used it only for 2 weeks now but I already love it. Everything is easy and smooth and I always feel like I can create connections, hierarchies, etc. exactly as I want them to be. If you don’t want to pay for Roam, there is Obsidian which seems like an exact copy with slightly less features that also has a free version. In any case, I can recommend using one of them, because everyone who is using them says it revolutionized the organization of their work. I know it’s just a note-taking app, but the difference it makes is much larger than I expected.
Even though I think that technology has great potential to improve productivity I put it very far down the list. This is simply because technology is just a tool to help you develop a good habit or make it easier to act upon it but won’t solve your problem by itself. If you don’t take the active mental steps, technology won’t help either.
One piece of advice that stuck with me was given by Mindingourway and is called reflect what is obvious. Before you start a new project think about the “obvious things” or what “common sense would dictate” and write them down. Often this includes rather simple ideas like checking out what other people already did or creating a list of necessary ingredients. Then ask others what they think is obvious when they wanted to solve your problem. And they will often come up with some items that you already thought about but then add a range of new ideas that seem like common sense to them but you just haven’t thought about. Most of the time they are very reasonable and you should include them. This trick won’t revolutionize your thinking but it’s one of these nice mental frames that are very helpful in real life and will solve you lots of time by not overcomplicating everything.
All of this is a lot and reading so many resources on productivity has made me feel like a rather unproductive person. However, I think that there are four main takeaways that lead me to be high-spirited for my future self.
Productivity is a journey, not a goal. There is no day at which you have reached maximum productivity and can stop working on yourself or improving it. Continuously applying the above tips and those from other resources will, with very high probability, increase your ability to reach goals with less effort. Just in the same way the school math felt hard and complicated at some point will you look back and realize the long way you have come. This framing also implies that being productive is not binary. It is not something that comes naturally for others but is inaccessible to you. Rather, everybody has to work on their habits and while some are further than others it is always possible to improve.
Take baby steps. You can’t expect to increase your productivity 10x overnight by reading this post and applying everything to your next project. Habits, similar to sports, have to be trained and improved by taking small steps in the right direction and continuously refining your skills. The hard work still has to be done by yourself but the right framing can definitely make it a lot easier. Also, remember that a lot of marginal gains will make a large difference down the line.
Restrict your monkey brain. A common theme among the implementation tricks is to realize when your system 1 makes decisions that don’t align with your long-term goals and use system 2 to design a system or process that makes it easier to act according to your expressed goals. A useful tool to remove your subjective biases is to pretend you are just observing what’s going on and plan for someone else as if you aren’t personally invested.
Don’t overcomplicate things. I would estimate that most gains in productivity come from really simple and obvious things. It isn’t necessary to optimize every minute of your day with a super complex rule system. Just asking yourself “What do I want to achieve?”, “What things are necessary to achieve that?” and “What is the most efficient way to achieve them?” and then start doing it immediately without pushing it into the future probably yields the largest gain already.
If you think this was helpful and know other people who you expect to like it, please share it with them. If you didn’t like it please contact me and tell me why.
I want to thank Laurenz and Julian for preaching Roam and Maria for her feedback.
One last note
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