How I made massive improvements in my productivity (despite not naturally being a productive person)

5 minute read

As someone who has had periodic (and highly variable) spurts of productivity, but never managed to isolate a good system for consistent, long-term results: I think I’ve finally found what works for me.

I’m posting this write-up on it in hopes that it helps others.

Problems

  1. I loved consuming information but was particularly resistant to gaining knowledge (i.e. browsing reddit vs learning math)

  2. Inspiration was common, but also fickle: I’d be inspired to do one project, work on it for a day or two, and then be inspired to do something else. Rinse and repeat indefinitely.

  3. How productive I was tended to correlate negatively with how much I had to do and how hard/intangible it was.

  4. Distractions were numerous: Quora, Hacker News, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc.

Observations

A lot of these problems turned out to be interwoven with each other. When I broke it down, this is what kept happening:

  • I’d either be assigned some work to do or be inspired to learn or do something.
  • If the work wasn’t already daunting, in my head I’d start imagining (unconsciously) what would make it “acceptable” and/or “worth telling my friends about” and/or “good enough”.
  • Usually this list of requirements I came up with would then become daunting.
  • After realizing its daunting-ness, I’d get anxious and start rationalizing procrastination.
  • Seeing the clock after an hour or two of burrying my head in the sand resulted in more anxiety, thus more procrastination.
  • Rinse and repeat until night-time (at which point I get too tired to care, and then fall asleep).

Solutions

My system clearly needed a lot of work, but it turned out to have 2 main holes I had to plug:

Eliminate Distractions

  • I couldn’t trust myself to not go on reddit et al., so I bought a subscription to Freedom. You give it a list of sites you don’t want to visit and the times you don’t want to visit them, and it disables them at those times (at the VPN level, so it doesn’t matter what browser you use). I specifically set it to only let me go on distracting sites between 6pm and 7pm (until I learn self control I suppose).
  • Unfortunately, Freedom isn’t available on Linux yet. However, I discovered that you can just edit your /etc/hosts file and add any sites there you don’t want to visit (e.g. 127.0.0.1 facebook.com). Does mostly the same thing, but easier to get around.
  • I emailed Derek Sivers about this, and he said some other stuff he does is
    1. move all your distracting apps (including your default browser) into a folder as far away from your home screen as you can (so you have to swipe multiple times to get to that page of apps)
    2. disable those apps from appearing in your recently used section (to avoid temptation to open them again) and
    3. download Firefox Focus (which makes you manually type out all your websites instead of remembering them).

A side effect of eliminating the distractions meant that I didn’t get random spurts of inspiration from various cool tech threads I found on reddit/HN, and instead got spurts of information from seeing myself succeed in whatever project I was doing (which didn’t pull me away to other things).

That took care of problems 2 and 4, here’s how I dealt with 1 and 3:

Set Up Formal Project Management

I resisted using a personal project management tool for a long time because it seemed like

  1. a pain (you mean I have to sketch out the entire thing, divvy up tasks, and all this stuff before I get to the fun part?) and

  2. a waste of time (why spend time jotting down what I’m going to do instead of doing it?).

However, I realized that I made it out to be a demanding taskmaster demon in my head when really it should be perceived as a helpful, guiding angel.

First, I had to mentally decouple all the stuff I needed to do from what I should be doing right this second.

Second, I had to take all the big/complex/abstract stuff and break it into small, actionable bits (I know this is what all the productivity people have been saying for ages…).

Third, I had to start recording anything I needed to do so that it didn’t fade into obscurity and stress me out because I forgot what it was / how important it was.

The project management I ended up using is called Basecamp. It costs money, but I totally played the student card and they gave it to me for free (for a year) when I emailed them.

My golden goose daily routine is now:

  • Exercise (did I mention exercise and not eating B.S. food helps a lot too? Seriously.)
  • Eat while reviewing my Anki deck (another great tool for learning and not forgetting what you learned)
  • Do the morning tasks I assigned myself last night in Basecamp
  • At 12:30pm, take a break, check email, and assign myself more tasks if I finished them all
  • at 5:30pm, at this point I’ve probably thought of more stuff to do later, so I’ll add these tasks to the big to-do list and break down the big ones into actionable chunks.
  • Finally, before I end my work day, I’ll assign myself a reasonable, digestible, and manageable amount of tasks to do the next morning.

During this whole time, if I think of something I need to do, I add it to the big to-do list, and if I learn something new, I’ll Ankify it / make flash cards for it.

The two key things that helped fix problems 1 and 3 are:

  • I no longer have unknown / unforgotten tasks that might be important eating away at me subconsciously
  • At any given time, what’s on my plate is always manageable and easy to create momentum
  • I might have a massive to-do list, but when I’m actually working, I always make sure I never look at that list and only look at the manageable, approachable “morning” or “afternoon” list (since looking at the big list stresses me out).
  • Any due dates are always accounted for, so once 6pm comes around I can mentally check out and recharge for the day (I learned that and more from Dr. Calvin Newport’s book: Deep Work)
  • With the majority of the stress and pressure gone, creating and learning became fun again! :)

So yeah, that’s my system. Hope it helps!