Getting a Productivity Boost With Repeating Text-to-Speech Reminders

Matt Reynolds (@mbrit)
Jun 6 · 4 min read

File this one under “why on earth didn’t I think of this before?”

I am currently reading “The 4-Hour Work Week” — look out for a book review in the future. Not to pre-empt that book report, but… it’s a weird book. Anyway, there are some good things in it that have jumped out — some real “aha!” moments have made me think.

One such moment was a chapter where Ferriss goes on and on about if you’re doing something, are you actually getting anything done. I’ve long lamented people who say that they’re “busy”, as this is a good measure of how hot your CPU is running, but not necessarily a measure of how well you’re working. I can go through my journal and see a lot of things ticked off, but are those things actually moving me closer to my objectives?

Ferriss talks about the idea of asking yourself, at various points during the day, are you being “effective”, or are you being “active”. He points to Parkinson’s Law (one of my favourite laws) that a task will expand in order to fill out its available time. My journal was showing that I was getting lot of errands done, very effectively, but was the “errand job” just getting bigger to fill up my day. As errands keep the lights on, but don’t get me closer to my objectives necessarily, was I managing to spend all day just being “active” without being “effective”? Well, yes… and I was congratulating myself for it.

“OK,” I thought, “I’d just add a bunch of Outlook reminders to my calendar and it’ll ping me periodically the question: ‘Are you being effective, or just active?’”

And then I realised that my Outlook calendar is a celebration of misuse. If I need to remember something I’ll schedule it into my diary for 10am and set it to repeat every day. Once I eventually do it, I go back and delete it. The result, a) Outlook is always nagging me, and b) I’ve learnt to ignore Outlook reminders. Nowadays, if it’s really important, I have to add a daily repeating alarm on my phone too. The advantages of this approach are slowly diminishing.

So I wanted to have my computer remind me to check in with myself and ask if I was being effective or just active, but I wanted to avoid alarm notifications I’d have to cancel as these a) would just start off irritating me, and b) would be totally ineffective within 48 hours.

“Why,” I thought, “don’t I get my computer to read out the phrase, ‘Matt, are you being effective or just active’ at random times during the day?” Quick Google later, and in macOS, you can do this from the shell:

say Matt, are you being effective of just active?

And it worked beautifully. Now, to script it. My go-to development environment is .NET. I already had Visual Studio Code installed, but never really got a chance to try it. I also had .NET Core installed, but again hadn’t had a chance to try it on macOS. In the same shell, I created a new .NET Core console application with “dotnet new console”, edited up a quick program, and off I went.

You can find the code here: https://gist.github.com/mbrit/167f70a67a6fce33c8ca2ce75bbe89d0.

What Microsoft is doing with thunking down these tools from the-way-we’ve-always-done-it with massive monolithic environments using Visual Studio and Windows down to running in slim little CLI, cross-platform approaches — it’s nothing short of staggering. It’ll never get any actual adoption, but the pivot itself is incredible, and such an impressive piece of work. It feels like a swan song for .NET, tbh. (More about why this is my position later.)

Now my Mac runs this console application in the background. Throughout the day, it’ll prompt me to think about whether I’m being effective or just active. If I’m not being effective, the next chance I get I can switch back onto the right track. If I am being effective, I can keep at it.

I’m not sure why this didn’t occur to me before. There are plenty of things I have to do repeatedly or often throughout the day — I can now put those reminders into the same system.

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