I think I am
at least somewhat more productive than average, and people sometimes ask me for
productivity tips. So I decided to just write them all down in one place.
growth gets discussed as a financial concept, but it works in careers as well,
and it is magic. A small productivity
gain, compounded over 50 years, is worth a lot.
So it’s worth figuring out how to optimize productivity. If you get 10%
more done and 1% better every day compared to someone else, the compounded
difference is massive.
WHAT YOU WORK
matter how fast you move if it’s in a worthless direction. Picking the right thing to work on is the
most important element of productivity and usually almost ignored. So think about it more! Independent thought is hard but it’s
something you can get better at with practice.
impressive people I know have strong beliefs about the world, which is rare in
the general population. If you find yourself always agreeing with whomever
you last spoke with, that’s bad. You
will of course be wrong sometimes, but develop the confidence to stick with
your convictions. It will let you be
courageous when you’re right about something important that most people don’t
I make sure to
leave enough time in my schedule to think about what to work on. The best
ways for me to do this are reading books, hanging out with interesting people,
and spending time in nature.
that I can’t be very productive working on things I don’t care about or don’t
like. So I just try not to put myself in a position where I have to do
them (by delegating, avoiding, or something else). Stuff that you don’t
like is a painful drag on morale and momentum.
By the way,
here is an important lesson about delegation: remember that everyone else is also
most productive when they’re doing what they like, and do what you’d want other
people to do for you—try to figure out who likes (and is good at) doing what,
and delegate that way.
If you find
yourself not liking what you’re doing for a long period of time, seriously
consider a major job change. Short-term burnout happens, but if it isn’t
resolved with some time off, maybe it’s time to do something you’re more
I’ve been very
fortunate to find work I like so much I’d do it for free, which makes it easy
to be really productive.
to learn that you can learn anything you want, and that you can get better
quickly. This feels like an unlikely miracle the first few times it
happens, but eventually you learn to trust that you can do it.
work usually requires colleagues of some sort. Try to be around smart,
productive, happy, and positive people that don’t belittle your ambitions. I love being around people who push me and
inspire me to be better. To the degree
you able to, avoid the opposite kind of people—the cost of letting them take up
your mental cycles is horrific.
You have to
both pick the right problem and do the work. There aren’t many
shortcuts. If you’re going to do
something really important, you are very likely going to work both smart and
hard. The biggest prizes are heavily competed for. This isn’t true in every field (there are
great mathematicians who never spend that many hours a week working) but it is
My system has
three key pillars: “Make sure to get the important shit done”, “Don’t waste
time on stupid shit”, and “make a lot of lists”.
recommend using lists. I make lists of what I want to accomplish each
year, each month, and each day. Lists are very focusing, and they help me
with multitasking because I don’t have to keep as much in my head. If I’m not in the mood for some particular
task, I can always find something else I’m excited to do.
I prefer lists
written down on paper. It’s easy to add
and remove tasks. I can access them
during meetings without feeling rude. I
re-transcribe lists frequently, which forces me to think about everything on the
list and gives me an opportunity to add and remove items.
I don’t bother
with categorization or trying to size tasks or anything like that (the most I
do is put a star next to really important items).
I try to
prioritize in a way that generates momentum. The more I get done, the
better I feel, and then the more I get done.
I like to start and end each day with something I can really make
relentless about getting my most important projects done—I’ve found that if I
really want something to happen and I push hard enough, it usually happens.
I try to be
ruthless about saying no to stuff, and doing non-critical things in the
quickest way possible. I probably take this too far—for example, I am
almost sure I am terse to the point of rudeness when replying to emails.
try to avoid meetings and conferences as I find the time cost to be huge—I get
the most value out of time in my office. However, it is critical that you
keep enough space in your schedule to allow for chance encounters and exposure
to new people and ideas. Having an open network is valuable; though
probably 90% of the random meetings I take are a waste of time, the other 10%
really make up for it.
I find most meetings are best scheduled for 15-20 minutes, or 2 hours. The default of 1 hour is usually wrong, and leads to a lot of wasted time.
different times of day I try to use for different kinds of work. The
first few hours of the morning are definitely my most productive time of the
day, so I don’t let anyone schedule anything then. I try to do meetings
in the afternoon. I take a break, or
switch tasks, whenever I feel my attention starting to fade.
I don’t think
most people value their time enough—I am surprised by the number of people I
know who make $100 an hour and yet will spend a couple of hours doing something
they don’t want to do to save $20.
fall into the trap of productivity porn—chasing productivity for its own sake
isn’t helpful. Many people spend too much time thinking about how to perfectly
optimize their system, and not nearly enough asking if they’re working on the
right problems. It doesn’t matter what system you use or if you squeeze
out every second if you’re working on the wrong thing.
The right goal
is to allocate your year optimally, not your day.
what is optimal for me won’t be optimal for you. You’ll have to
experiment to find out what works best for your body. It’s definitely worth doing—it helps in all
aspects of life, and you’ll feel a lot better and happier overall.
took a little bit of my time every week for a few years to arrive at what works
best for me, but my sense is if I do a good job at all the below I’m at least
1.5x more productive than if not.
Sleep seems to
be the most important physical factor in productivity for me. Some sort
of sleep tracker to figure out how to sleep best is helpful. I’ve found the only
thing I’m consistent with are in the set-it-and-forget-it category, and I
really like the Emfit QS+Active.
I like a cold,
dark, quiet room, and a great mattress (I resisted spending a bunch of money on
a great mattress for years, which was stupid—it makes a huge difference to my
sleep quality. I love this one). Not eating a lot in the few hours before sleep
helps. Not drinking alcohol helps a lot, though
I’m not willing to do that all the time.
I use a Chili
Pad to be cold while I sleep if I can’t get the room cold enough, which is
great but loud (I set it up to have the cooler unit outside my room).
I use an eye mask and ear plugs.
This is likely
to be controversial, but I take a low dose of sleeping pills (like a third of a
normal dose) or a very low dose of cannabis whenever I can’t sleep. I am
a bad sleeper in general, and a particularly bad sleeper when I travel. It likely has tradeoffs,
but so does not sleeping well. If you
can already sleep well, I wouldn’t recommend this.
I use a full
spectrum LED light most mornings for about 10-15 minutes while I catch up on
email. It’s great—if you try nothing else in here, this is the thing I’d
try. It’s a ridiculous gain for me.
I like this one, and it’s easy to travel with.
probably the second most important physical factor. I tried a number of
different exercise programs for a few months each and the one that seemed best
was lifting heavy weights 3x a week for an hour, and high intensity interval
training occasionally. In addition to productivity gains, this is also
the exercise program that makes me feel the best overall.
The third area
is nutrition. I very rarely eat breakfast, so I get about 15 hours of
fasting most days (except an espresso when I wake up). I know this is contrary
to most advice, and I suspect it’s not optimal for most people, but it
definitely works well for me.
Eating lots of
sugar is the thing that makes me feel the worst and that I try hardest to
avoid. I also try to avoid foods that aggravate my digestion or spike up
inflammation (for example, very spicy foods). I don’t have much willpower when it comes to
sweet things, so I mostly just try to keep junk food out of the house.
I have one big shot of espresso immediately when I wake up and one after lunch. I assume this is
about 200mg total of caffeine per day. I
tried a few other configurations; this was the one that worked by far the best.
I otherwise aggressively avoid stimulants, but I will have more coffee if
I’m super tired and really need to get something done.
vegetarian and have been since I was a kid, and I supplement methyl B-12, Omega-3, Iron, and Vitamin D-3. I
got to this list with a year or so of quarterly blood tests; it’s worked for me
ever since (I re-test maybe every year and a half or so). There are many
doctors who will happily work with you on a super comprehensive blood test (and
services like WellnessFX). I also go out
of my way to drink a lot of protein shakes, which I hate and I wouldn’t do if I
Here’s what I
like in a workspace: natural light, quiet, knowing that I won’t be interrupted
if I don’t want to be, long blocks of time, and being comfortable and relaxed
(I’ve got a beautiful desk with a couple of 4k monitors on it in my office, but
I spend almost all my time on my couch with my laptop).
I wrote custom
software for the annoying things I have to do frequently, which is great.
I also made an effort to learn to type really fast and the keyboard
shortcuts that help with my workflow.
people, I sometimes go through periods of a week or two where I just have no
motivation to do anything (I suspect it may have something to do with
nutrition). This sucks and always seems to happen at inconvenient
times. I have not figured out what to do
about it besides wait for the fog to lift, and to trust that eventually it
always does. And I generally try to
avoid people and situations that put me in bad moods, which is good advice
whether you care about productivity or not.
In general, I
think it’s good to overcommit a little bit. I find that I generally get
done what I take on, and if I have a little bit too much to do it makes me more
efficient at everything, which is a way to train to avoid distractions (a great
habit to build!). However, overcommitting a lot is disastrous.
your family and friends for the sake of productivity—that’s a very stupid
tradeoff (and very likely a net productivity loss, because you’ll be less
happy). Don’t neglect doing things you love or that clear your head
repeat one more time: productivity in the wrong direction isn’t worth anything
at all. Think more about what to work on.