How I Reduced Stress, Increased Productivity, and Made Myself Happy Again
“His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti.
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready…” -Eminem, “Lose Yourself”
This was me.
No, I’m not Eminem. And no, I’m not walking around with spaghetti on my sweater. I don’t really even wear sweaters.
But I was dealing with constant feelings of stress and anxiety. Starting a company is fucking hard. There’s no manual for first-time founders.
On the surface I looked and acted as normal as I could. But truthfully, I was overwhelmed.
I was a swelling balloon that never popped. But rather I began to deflate gradually. You don’t recognize it at first. After a while though, you notice something isn’t right.
It was the way I worked that enabled the worst in my obsession with productivity. An OCD-like infatuation that resulted only in self-sabotage.
It had created an unhappy person obsessed with all of the wrong things about work. An unsustainable modus operandi.
And so I needed a fresh start. I began to embark on a complete reinvention of my operating model. A full reset of the mind and the creation of a new system for doing things.
Fast forward to now…
I’ve gotten more work done this week (it’s Tuesday at 4:30pm) than I would have previously in a 7-day week.
And — I’m not stressed, or anxious, or even close to burned out.
I’m happy. I’m energized. I’m fucking excited.
Here’s how I did it…
1. Start Fresh. Question Everything.
I used to read non-stop about productivity. I still read and experiment with it — only now I have a clearer picture of what it looks like.
Do this, try that. Schedule this, snooze that.
I ended up with so many productivity hacks and exercises that I spent more time on them than actually getting shit done… you know, being productive.
So I dropped it. I dropped it all.
The reminders. The apps. The tasks. The bullshit.
I looked up the definition of productivity. Here’s what I got:
And since I’m not a crop farmer, I decided to define it myself…
Getting shit done that moves things forward
That’s what productivity is.
And with that, I began to build a personalized productivity system from the ground up, with a focus on moving things forward.
For everything I was doing, I would stop and ask,
“Does this move things forward?”
It’s a healthy exercise to do, even if you aren’t struggling the way I was. Audit what you do and ask why you do it. Over time things tend to pile up. It’s important to do some housecleaning once in a while.
So I cleaned house and focused on my new system. One designed to get important things done before dealing with anything else. One designed to optimize my time and my mind.
The rest of the list are the actions that followed…
2. “The Post-it System” and The Death of Digital To-Do Lists.
By questioning everything I did, one thing became abundantly obvious: I needed to stop using Google Inbox.
The reasons are detailed here: “Why I Quit Google Inbox”. And the most common question I’ve gotten since writing that is…
“So what do you do now?”
I use a Post-it note. Just one.
Digital To-Do lists can be endless. You can put thousands of tasks and reminders in there and have room for millions more.
On a Post-it, I can fit 3.
And so I write on it the three most important things I can do that day. They are prioritized based on their impact; #1 being the most impactful.
“Impactful” meaning it move things forward for the company or for me personally.
In my situation, these two blend…
Company success = personal success
Taking care of myself personally = I perform better for the company
I’m aiming for tangible progress. For movement forward. The Post-it provides the tactics to achieve this.
And notice the list is prioritized. Something digital To-Do lists tend to fall short on. Throwing reminders and tasks into an unordered list makes them all appear equal.
Sure you can call that important client -OR- you could quickly post a photo on the company Instagram. Either way you get the gratification of crossing something off the list. So you are actually incentivized to do the thing that is quick and easy. The reward is the same.
But the results are drastically different.
This mindset compounded over time derails your goals or, at the very least, significantly delays them.
The Post-it System has you force-rank the top three things that you need to get done. It provides focus. It advances your goals. It moves shit forward.
I create it at the end of each day.
And the next morning it sits on my desk, staring judgmentally until I cross off item 1. The visual cue is powerful.
I’m happy when I get to cross something off. It’s gratifying. Pursuing that gratification hungers me to start my day.
This strategy yields incredible results. Rather than trying to “build the wall”, I stay focused on laying bricks. I feel happy and accomplished each time I do. And soon — you start to see a wall forming.
3. The Morning Routine.
The Post-it strategy frames the entire system. Now let’s backtrack to the start of each day.
The first thing I do after getting up is make tea. I switched from regular coffee. While tea doesn’t give me the immediate energy spike, I’ve found it’s a more sustained charge and doesn’t make me crash.
This, coupled with some minor physical exercise (stretching, maybe pushups or squats), wakes my body up and gets my mind going.
Next I meditate for 10 minutes.
(Don’t ignore meditation. I’ve done it for a while and it was important to keep in my routine. I recommend Headspace to start.)
And immediately after that — I write.
I don’t write long but I force myself to get those early thoughts out. Some of the clearest, most creative thinking comes first thing in the morning, when you’re waking up, getting ready, or taking a shower.
It can be a blog post draft, a journal to myself, or some new idea related to work… it doesn’t matter. I want to get these thoughts down.
After all of this, I typically have about an hour before our regular team check-in. I’ll use this time to start, and maybe finish, item 1 on the Post-it.
4. Digging Into The Work.
Now it’s time for our meeting. We try to keep it to 15 minutes or less. Perhaps I’ll have another cup of tea (hardcore, I know).
I take notes during the meeting and catalog any needed followups. If I’m blocking someone — I do that immediately.
This is an important note.
Yes, in this case I am spending time on something that isn’t on the Post-it. But it’s important to get the team mobilized before working on my own tasks. The meeting already forced my mind to switch contexts. So it’s more efficient to stay in that context, take action, and get others moving forward.
Then it’s back to the Post-it.
Now I’m caffeinated, I’m intellectually stimulated, the team is mobilized, and I’m more than ready to tackle my list, one at a time.
Notice — I haven’t checked email yet. It used to be the first thing I did.
That comes only after item 1 is complete. At that time I will check email, take a walk (coupled with scheduled calls), and eat lunch. The afternoon is dedicated to items 2 & 3.
After those are done, I check with the team, look at email again, and use all of those inputs to create tomorrow’s list.
This email philosophy is very “Four Hour Workweek”, of course. That book is almost 10 years old but the principles are as sound and relevant as ever.
5. General Rules.
Stop procrastinating. Make decisions and take immediate action. Don’t “snooze” things that need to get done. Force yourself to be decisive — moving important things forward and cutting ruthlessly things that are not.
Prioritize yourself. Make happiness something you work on. It’s a state you achieve, rather than one that magically comes and sustains. Work at it. Take measures to do things that you enjoy and eliminate things you don’t. Be honest with how you feel about doing certain things. Cut out the ones you dislike. Make time for the ones you love.
Get rid of the negatives. This bears repeating. Stop doing shit you hate. Especially unnecessary shit. It can be people, tasks, or activities. Get rid of any that are negative. Any that make you feel bad. Ask yourself if it moves things forward. Ask yourself if you like doing it. It should only be done if the answer to one of those questions is “yes”. And if it does move things forward but you dislike it — perhaps someone can help, or even do it for you.
Set macro goals, create micro systems. My weekly goals became the end of me. I set too many. And many I set were unimportant but existed due to my necessity to be busy. They consumed me. Instead, I now set goals for the year. I then implement systems (a chain of behaviors and actions taken daily or weekly) that further those bigger goals.
Don’t suppress yourself. If there’s something you want to do or an idea you’d love to pursue — try it. Stop any thoughts that come about saying, “you can’t do that because of XYZ.” Stop that. You can. If it’s meaningful, make time for it. Prioritize it. Don’t suppress ideas… explore them fully. Let them run their course. That’s the only way they evolve and grow.
Most of this is simple but eluded me for so long.
I’m glad I’ve made these changes. They’ve had a profound impact on my life, both personally and professionally. But it’s all a work in progress. I’ll always try to improve myself — living in “permanent beta”.
Of course not everyone has the same commitments, goals, or life circumstances. Try your own version of this and see if you have similar results. When it comes to being happy and being productive — there isn’t one true answer. Pick out things you like and ignore things you don’t. If you’re self-aware and always strive to be better… you will.