How to be productive

A bit more than a year ago (2012/11/13) I started a journal entry with the words: “I am going to figure out how productivity works!”

Fast forward to today and I think I have almost cracked it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind.

The first 26 years of my life were extremely unproductive — I took on too many tasks, tried to do all of them at once, ran out of energy, procrastinated, got upset at myself, lost motivation, ate junk, drank red bull, worked throughout the night, multitasked, got something done, crashed, slept in and repeated ad nauseam. It was tiring and exhausting. Being a naturally unorganised person didn’t help.

I did manage to kick myself enough to finish several work projects, graduate university and do some extracurricular activities, however none of them with the passion, energy and devotion they should have deserved. 30-minute tasks like “print business cards”, “write a report of this meeting” or even “delegate my tasks to other people” were delayed for months, while people waited and lost faith in me.

On the outside I cultivated an “always busy” image, while in reality I just had something random to keep me busy, often something not important. Strangely I couldn’t control it. I decided this was no way to live a life.

Over the years I tried a lot of things. Some worked, many didn’t. This post summarises many of the things I’ve learned and applied that have made me a lot more productive in life. I believe the principles below are quite universal, however, as always, your mileage may vary.

Habits

Some scientists believe our willpower is limited. If you spend energy resisting a muffin, forcing yourself to exercise or to wake up early, you’ll deplete it and perform worse on any cognitive task and in life in general. There are numerous scientific studies to back this up.

Other studies show our willpower is limited only if we believe it’s limited. Otherwise we have an endless supply.

No matter which side is right, if you spend energy forcing yourself to exercise or to avoid a temptation, you can make worse decisions later that day. If your brain is exhausted, you won’t be able to resist three Breaking Bad episodes or browsing Reddit for an hour. While it is possible to increase your willpower with regular exercise or meditation, why deplete it in the first place?

Instead of spending all your willpower fighting temptations, how much better would your life be if you used it in a creative way, such as becoming better at your job, reading books, drawing, writing, brainstorming ideas for your next startup, gardening, talking to your family or doing just about anything?

The key is to build automatic routines that enforce healthy habits, require no willpower and make your life better in some way. You must build strategic routines which give you energy, push you towards your goals and steer you clear of temptations, without you even thinking about them.

I used to fight a lot to get myself out of bed in the morning. Obviously I would lose, shut the alarm, sleep in and not get up before eleven-twelve. By fighting myself I depleted so much willpower it was hard to be motivated for any real work. The “morning” grogginess didn’t help.

One year ago when I wanted to get this handled I realised I need to get up at 6:30 to finish all that I want to do in a day. For someone who was used to sleeping until noon for most of my life, it seemed like an impossible task. So I installed an annoying alarm clock app that asked math puzzles before shutting off, wrote an e-mail to a friend stating “if I don’t write again by 7:00 I’ll pay you 50€”, and set off for my unhealthy 4h 30min sleep for that night. It worked and I was out of bed by 6:40. The math questions were harder than expected… The next night I went to bed around 11pm and woke up at 6:30 again. This continued for a month, after which I switched to getting up at 6:00 instead.

I made it inevitable that I would get out of bed on time. There was no way I was going to give away 50€ for this. The math and other puzzles made it inevitable I would stay awake. The bright screen of my phone tricked my body into believing the sun is up and to start the natural wake-up cycle. All-in-all it worked and I got out of bed.

That was just the first step.

Whether you call them habits, routines or rituals, it takes about one month to fully automatise something in your life.

If you start a new habit, the first 10 days will be easy. You will be drawn towards the change in your life. It will feel new and refreshing. The next 10 days will be hard. Very hard. The lazy bastard inside you will speak up. Silence him or her. Remind yourself why you’re doing this. Why are you getting up so early and trying to live your life to the fullest? Speak up about it. Internalise it. Rewrite it in your journal every day if you have to.

The remaining 10 days will be mediocre. You’ll encounter resistance and you’ll see it fade. After that, congratulations, you have developed a new habit! It will seem strange to even think about your old behaviour. It will seem wrong to wake up at noon.

Now I wake up at 6am on most weekdays. The exceptions are when I’m ill or travelling. Weekends are for sleeping longer. I’ve been doing this for a year and can’t even remember how life was like before. This one simple change has had profound effects on the rest of my life. And it only took about a month of conscious effort before it became automatic and effortless.

Make no mistake, getting out of a warm bed that early in the morning is still hard. However, I don’t resist anymore. I reach for my alarm clock, finish the wake up puzzles and stare at the bright screen for a while. Then I get up, visit the bathroom and make myself a cup of coffee in the kitchen.

This is my current routine to start the day. I’ve toyed with different variations in the past: pushups and a shower right after getting out of bed, drinking matcha instead of coffee, making a breakfast milkshake, going running at 6:30, etc. It’s very likely I’ll change something again in the future.

Basically, if you want anything done automatically, force yourself to do it until it becomes automatic. Make it inevitable you do this thing for 30 days and it’ll become inevitable you’ll start doing it automatically.

I identified that one positive change which would have the biggest impact on my life (waking up early), forced myself to do it for 30 days and then kept at it. Over the last year I have identified many other positive changes to make in my life, turned them into habits and now run them on autopilot.

Which one new habit would have the biggest positive impact on your life? Think about it. Then do it.

Breaks

In the world of sports the idea of alternating performance with periods of rest is well known.

“Following a period of activity, the body must replenish fundamental biochemical sources of energy” — The Power of Full Engagement.

This makes sense. You train, you rest. The rule is universal.

How is it then that professional office workers, many of whom are under an enormous amount daily stress, are expected to perform at their very best every moment of every day? Taking a break is a sign of weakness, not reading e-mail during a vacation is frowned upon.

How are professional corporate athletes different from professional sports athletes?

In short, they aren’t. They need to rest as well.

Most people know of sleep cycles — the different phases of sleep we go through in the night. We alternate between REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep in roughly 90-minute intervals multiple times per night.

Less people know a version of the same natural 90-to 120-minute cycles operates when we’re awake. This dictates that 90–120 minutes is the maximum we can be efficient on any task at hand. Then we need to rest and replenish our energy.

Circadium Rhythm Sleep Stages
Circadium Rhythm Sleep Stages. Image from http://nutesla.com/science/circadian-rhythms/

After 90 minutes of work you must take a 30 minute break for the next 90 minutes to be as efficient as possible. The more you disconnect from work during those 30 minutes, the better.

Just being aware of this ridiculously simple “take breaks every 90 minutes” technique dramatically improved my work output. I once saw every day as one long Red Bull-sponsored marathon. Now it’s more like a series of sprints followed by ample recovery time.

Before I had to fight myself to stop procrastinating and actually get some work done. It got harder as the day dragged on. Now when I feel the urge to visit Reddit I know it’s my body’s way of telling me I need to take a break. So I do. When I come back I’m well rested and able to do another 90 minutes of efficient work.

“We are capable of overriding these natural cycles, but only by summoning the fight-or-flight response and flooding our bodies with stress hormones that are designed to help us handle emergencies” — The Power of Full Engagement.

Go more than 90 minutes and your performance suffers. You’ll waste a lot of willpower just staying focused and be tired by the end of the day. Make a small break every 1.5h and not only will you have a productive day, you’ll also have energy left to enjoy the evening!

Some people prefer working 25 minutes, taking a 5 minute break and then repeating (The Pomodoro Technique), however I found 90+30 minute system to be a better fit for my working style.

Don’t break the chain

When Brad Isaac asked Jerry Seinfeld for tips for a young comic, he got very solid advice in return:

He [Seinfeld] said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself — even when you don’t feel like it.
He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here’s how it works.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

Update 07/01/2014. Seinfeld denies this, but the idea is solid nevertheless.

I started this around three months ago. My goal was to get in better shape, live in a clean house and write something every day. So I decided to do 15 minutes of sports, 15 minutes of cleaning, 15 minutes of reading and 15 minutes of writing every day. I printed a huge monthly calendar and put it on the kitchen wall. Every day after completing these tasks, I would mark four crosses in the calendar.

If for some reason I could not do a task (ill, travelling, etc), I had to write down the reason instead. This left one of two options: I could either do the tasks or had to consciously skip them for a very good reason. Feeling lazy is not a good reason.

The tasks were:

  • at least 15 min of sports — weightlifting for 15 minutes, going for a ~30min run or taking a 2+ hour long walk
  • at least 15 min of cleaning — anything connected to making the house a better place to live
  • at least 15 min of reading — reading real books, not online sites like hacker news
  • at least 15 min of writing — evaluating personal goals and todo lists, brainstorming ideas, writing blog posts, crafting longer personal e-mails or random short stories, etc

My girlfriend decided to join with a calendar of her own. Only instead of 15 minutes of writing, she took 15 minutes of any creative work (drawing, making jewellery, learning the guitar, etc).

2014-01-01 22.03.15 copy

Three months in and the calendar has been a resounding success! Apart for some longer travels (valid excuses) I only missed one 15 min sport session in the first week as I was sore from the day before. Other than that:

  • Our house is consistently cleaner than it has ever been before. Low hanging and otherwise boring fruits like “iron the clothes” get done immediately as it’s a great way to easily clock up the 15 minutes.
  • I feel stronger than I ever felt before, dropped my 5K time by another minute, can bench press more than ever before and I’m slowly starting to see some abs forming.
  • I read many books I had been postponing for too long
  • I feel more fulfilled as I magically have time to write for myself (and I finished this blog post!)

Getting to this point was surprisingly easy. Once I got a few weeks of crosses, I was determined not to be the guy who would break the chain by being too lazy to clean for 15 minutes after dinner. It didn’t take long before I started planning my day around getting all the tasks done. “I still have my reading and cleaning to do” became a common phrase uttered around the dinner table.

Now I’m so committed to not breaking the chain that even on the 1st of January 2014 at 4 am I did my remaining 10 minutes of reading (of The Motivation Hacker — great book!) before falling asleep. I couldn’t find more than 5 minutes in the day before and it just had to be done!

As I take a 30 minute break from work every 90 minutes, this became the perfect opportunity to completely disconnect from work and get these tasks done.

Try it. This will change your life!

Putting it all together

The best way to improve your life is to come up with positive routines and make it inevitable you do them for 30 days until they become habits — until you start doing them automatically and can’t imagine your life without them.

Come up with ideas for new positive habits, pick the best one and make it inevitable you do it for 30 days! If your goal is to be more productive, pick the one habit which will make you most productive. Same for weight loss, etc. When you have integrated this habit into your life, take the next one and repeat. Don’t go overboard and only develop one new change in your life at a time.

The most important habits I developed last year were:

  • waking up at 6 am every workday
  • taking a 30 minute break after every 90 minute session of work
  • committing to doing 15min of reading, writing, sports and cleaning every day
  • doing those activities during my 30 minute work breaks

These small and now automatic habits have dramatically improved my quality of life, my work output and my overall happiness. While I still have many areas to improve, I’m very proud of the changes I’ve made until now and can’t wait to see what 2014 will bring!

If you try any of what I wrote above, please write a comment and tell me how it went! If you found this post useful, it would mean the world to me if you would hit “like” below or shared it in some other way! And don’t forget to subscribe on the left (or top) for updates. Thanks! :)

Archived comments from when the blog was self hosted:

http://blog.jenniferdewalt.com/post/56319597560/im-learning-to-code-by-building-180-websites-in , https://medium.com/@herbertlui/why-quantity-should-be-your-priority-3bc2b16fe3f5
http://www.pdfcalendar.com/monthly/
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