7 rules for being more productive

I’m design-hacking my life (Part 1)

At some point in the last three years, I decided to stop fighting myself. As a designer, I wouldn’t expect users to change deep-seated habits and psychological tendencies in order to use my product—at least not without a lot of hand-holding, guideposts, and forgiveness along the way. So instead of relying on sheer willpower to get myself to do things that went against my body, habits, and preferences, I’ve set up some rules that have forced—or rather, forcibly encouraged—me to be more productive.

I thought I would share some of them.

Part 1 of a series on life hacks. See part 2 on being more focused and disciplined, part 3 on being healthier, and part 4 on what I know about being happy.

1—I don’t (let myself) install games on my phone.

This is what designers call a forcing function: a behavior-shaping constraint, a means of preventing undesirable user action. So when I am on the train or waiting on a line and I take out my phone to look for something mindless to waste time with, I only have productive options (at least after I’ve exhausted Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, email…): Pocket, Kindle, TED.

Use forcing functions widely.

2—I only (let myself) reply to emails on my commute.

My commute takes a good 2.5 hour chunk out of my day, back and forth. Answering emails used to also take a good chunk of time out of my day. So I got over my aversion to typing long passages of text on my tiny iPhone keyboard.

Make use of dead time.

3—I exploit my obsession with checking things off of lists.

I know that if I put something on a to-do list, my inclination to do that thing skyrockets. For example, at the beginning of every year for the last three years, I have given myself a list of X things to accomplish, with X being the age that I will turn that year. Putting things on this list has led me to do things that I would have never done otherwise:

Piggyback on the things you enjoy doing.

4—I quantify every goal.

Even the ones that seem not to be—or seem like they shouldn’t be—quantifiable. “Spend more time with parents” becomes “have dinner with them at least once a week.” “Help my brother with his job hunt” becomes “help him send out 20 job applications.” “Be more focused” becomes “say ‘no’ to 20 opportunities (freelance projects, invitations, ideas, etc) this year.”

Quantifying goals gratifies the obsessive list-maker in me, because then I get to check something off on a relatively consistent basis, as opposed to at the end point when I accomplish them.

Give yourself something to measure, consistently.

5—I give myself deadlines.

Conditioned by years and years of schooling, I usually will not do anything unless there is some form of deadline—even better if they are not completely and arbitrarily made up by me. For example, Chinese New Year became the perfect target by which to finish clearing out my closet, because it is customary to do a thorough cleaning of the entire house in anticipation of the new year.

Set constraints.

6—I do something every day (or almost every day)

I’ve found this works really well for me. If there’s something big I want to do that seems intimidating, I break it down into units of work that can be completed in a single day:

  • “Read more” is “read 5 pages of a book every day”
  • “Eat healthier” is “eat at least one healthy meal every day”
  • “Learn more about the ed tech industry” was “read 1 article on education every day”

Over time, add stuff up.

7—And lastly, I try to focus only on doing things I want to do.

This one might seem obvious. But I struggle with this the most. I think it’s safe to say that all the goals I’ve set for myself fall somewhere on a Venn diagram of “things I should do” and “things I actually really want to do.”

‘Should’ is not enough. I should floss every day. I should be more politically aware. But if a goal is not something I also really want, I will never work on it. Having goals that I should be working on merely gives me a nagging feeling that I’m failing at something.


I think I have figured out at least how to turn things I should do into things I actually want to do.

I make sure I articulate my own reasons for all the goals I set. I should eat healthy—but I also want to because I want to live a long and healthy life. Because I want to give myself that form of self-respect. Because I want my body and brain to listen to me.

The other reasons for eating healthy were not enough for me. I have never wanted to lose weight badly enough to pick the salad over the spam fried rice.

So. Whatever it takes.

Pick your own ‘why’.

Do you have any rules of your own? Let me know! I love trying out new productivity tips.

Related Posts

  1. 4 rules for being more focused and disciplined
    I’m design-hacking my life (Part 2)
  2. 5 rules for being healthier
    I’m design-hacking my life (Part 3)
  3. 10 things I know about being happy
  4. How to design a 365 day project
    From the trenches: I’m on day 300 of 365 days of learning how to draw
  5. How to become a morning person (and have fun while you’re at it)
    From a lifelong night owl