20 Principles to Help You Achieve More Through Proven Systems & Lasting Habits
By WELTON CHANG
Hi, my name is Welton Chang. I’m working on a psychology PhD in Philadelphia, the home of Rocky and cheese-steaks. In a past life, I served as an Army officer and worked at the Defense Department. Philly, the Army, the Pentagon: these places and institutions represent the epitome of hard work and getting stuff done. Along the way, while working in Iraq and battling the bureaucracy in Washington, I picked up a few principles to supercharge my own productivity. I want to pass along these principles to you because boosting productivity is something we need to do these days just to survive.
One thing that has stuck with me all these years is the adage “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Just look at Tom Brady, one of the winningest quarterbacks of all time. Did you know he was drafted in the sixth round after 198 other football players? Brady’s discipline and focus is the stuff of legend. Also consider JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. At one point in her life she was divorced, unemployed, and living in poverty. Today she is one of the wealthiest women in the world and a philanthropist who hasn’t forgotten her roots. Brady and Rowling could have easily given up or played down to the expectations everyone had for them. But not only did they ignore the critics and naysayers: they thrived.
Not very many people are naturally endowed with superhuman gifts. For the rest of us, we have to make do with what we have. I’m not suggesting that by reading this book you’ll suddenly win a Super Bowl or write a best-selling book. Far from it. But you can excel with what you have, by working hard and by following some of the principles I detail in the following pages. I’m not saying that positive thoughts and optimism don’t matter - they do, but they are no panacea for your productivity problems. At the end of the day, hard work is what sees us through. And trust me - following through on some of these principles is going to require tough work. It’s going to be a challenge, no doubt about it.
I think you’ll find many of these tactics and techniques helpful. No one becomes incredibly productive overnight. Learning to be productive requires experience, experimentation, and most of all putting around yourself the structure necessary for success. By passing along the things I’ve learned, I hope it’ll shorten your own experimental timeline. Heed these principles and they will help you supercharge your productivity.
Principle 1: Proper planning and organization sets the table for productivity
Have you ever heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder”? Keep that phrase in mind while you’re reading this e-book. There’s a place for brute force approaches to productivity, but you generally can’t sustain that for long. In order to become more productive, you have to make a greater return for your attention, labor, and effort investments.
So don’t just dive blindly in an attempt to boost your productivity. Having a good plan is essential to being productive. Preparation is the key to success in many domains. Becoming more productive is no different. Preparing for each day, each project, and each endeavor in a disciplined fashion will help you set the conditions for being more productive and ultimately for being successful. Planning means getting all the materials you need to succeed in place before you need them. It means anticipating problems in advance so that when you encounter them you’ll have a fix in mind or in place right away.
Organization, whether it be the file structure on your computer or the way you maintain written notes, means being able to call on the things and knowledge you need in a timely manner. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten frantic emails or calls from colleagues who misplaced a file or can’t remember something and need to be reminded. Keeping yourself organized and having a system prevents these kinds of pseudo-emergencies from cropping up.
First, I use backwards planning to make sure I have enough time to accomplish what I need to accomplish. This is a technique I picked up in the Army. Start with the deadline and work incrementally from there, putting in reasonable time estimates for the critical things you need to get done as you move towards your goal. If you can’t make the work fit within the deadline, then you know that the deadline isn’t reasonable and that you have to adjust it. You do this before you have to push the deadline at the last minute.
Second, I schedule my entire day. Some people are obligated to do this because that is what their workplace demands. But for many knowledge workers and the millions of freelance workers out there, your day is your day. How much work you get done is entirely dependent on you and your willpower. So, what better way of getting yourself up to the task than to put all of the “first down” markers on the field before you have to reach them? Scheduling your entire day also means that you’ll have some motivation to hit all of those interior deadlines. This ultimately makes the wider task and bigger deadlines seem less dreadful and insurmountable.
Third, using lists and Gantt charts are some of the easier ways to get and stay organized. There are lots of tools out there, but probably none better and more useful than a set of index cards. Generally, I write down tasks that I don’t immediately finish and need to tackle later on a card (it gets filled up during the day) and as I get through them, I’ll satisfyingly cross the item off my list. For longer term tracking, I use Google Keep for my lists, tracking the things I need to get done, categorized by project. It works well across platforms (it has an iOS app version and web-accessible interface) and I like that it is no-frill and barebones. I’m able to use the Keep app to categorize project-related checklists (I upload pictures for easy project identification) and it keeps track of the project tasks I’ve finished. I’ve used Evernote in the past, but ultimately it felt a bit too clunky for me to use, especially if I simply wanted to pull up a list and cross off an item. I still do keep scanned documents there, but for me, Google Keep works better than Evernote.
Before starting a big project, I’ll sketch out the broad outlines of it, to either socialize the ideas with teammates or to keep myself on track. Want to write a novel? Or learn to dunk a basketball? It is much harder to accomplish these things if you don’t plan and prepare. Gantt charts help you keep all of your lines of effort in order and on time.
One other trick I’ve learned is to prepare for the following work-day by laying out all of my clothes, preparing my backpacks, and preparing my food and coffee for the following day the night before. I’m sure many others do this too. I also keep two backpacks and a suitcase permanently packed, one for classwork, one for the gym, and one for traveling. This saves me a lot of time in case last minute travel comes up and gets me out the door sooner on a regular basis.
A few other tricks I’ve learned in terms of preparing for a day involve food. I enjoy snacking throughout the day and also grabbing the occasional coffee. Like everyone else I can’t resist the offer of a brownie from a colleague or if everyone is headed out to Starbucks for a mid-afternoon pick me up. But this takes time, breaks the flow of concentration, and can get in the way of getting stuff done. You will eventually pay for it with time at the end of the day—when everyone else is headed out the door, you’ll be stuck there mulling over your poor life choices.
To get around this but still have the ability to snack, I prepare a few GoStak bottles worth of snacks that I buy in bulk (roasted cashews, roasted chickpeas, granola, pumpkin seeds) and grab the bottles on the way out the door. I usually pack three of these per week, on Sunday night. This way I always have a ready supply of snacks in my bag. The bottles are pretty much airtight and keep the snacks fresh, in case I find myself carrying them around for a while. The other thing I do (well actually, my lovely wife does) is use the crockpot to cook multiple meals like beef stew that will keep for multiple nights. This is usually good for a few nights worth of dinners and really cuts down on meal prep time during the week when time is really precious. Having some good Tupperware containers (get the glass ones, they hold up better in the dishwasher and are more easily microwaved) is the real key to making the multiple dinners work.
The final trick that I use to make sure I’m well prepared for the day and week is to review what I need to do the following day. While I tell myself that I should do this the night before, it inevitably ends up being in the morning. Part of my morning routine involves taking my allergy meds, listening to the “Flash News” update and weather on the Amazon Echo, and checking my calendar to make sure I don’t miss anything. I use the Sortd Chrome plug-in for Gmail. Sortd allows me to prioritize tasks by funneling emails into priority lists (lots of my taskings come through email) and ensure that I don’t forget I didn’t manage to finish the night before.
In terms of my daily routine, I try to keep things are routine as possible, to save my mental bandwidth for tougher and more meaningful challenges. I personally love my cheap Hamilton Beach coffee maker, because the back detaches and can be filled directly in the sink, unlike other models. Saves me time pouring water and I never have a spill to clean up. I also wear pretty much the same thing each day -- khakis, slacks, and solid, dark colored collared or regular shirts. I really love Outlier clothing and Merrell boots because they are versatile, can be worn multiple days without washing, and don’t look out of place in a meeting room or when traveling. When I wore a suit to work every day for nearly five years, I had five suits on rotation, one for each day of the week. I also had about twenty pre-arranged shirt-tie combinations. I really like Banana Republic’s no wrinkle shirts. Ironing is one chore I don’t mind not doing. Wearing the same thing to work is a cognitive offloading trick that many people use. Not having to worry these small choices makes life easier. Guess who else does this? President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg.
Principle 1 Summary
- Use backwards planning to ensure you can get stuff done on time.
- Use schedules, lists, and Gantt charts to keep yourself organized and disciplined.
- During particularly busy weeks, prep snacks and dinners to cut down on meal prep time.
- Check tomorrow’s schedule the night before to ensure you’re properly prioritized.
- Prepare for each day consistently to reduce your morning cognitive load.
Principle 2: Set daily goals and split up larger tasks into micro-tasks
This principle works hand-in-hand with proper planning. I usually assign myself one daily goal related to a core work priority. For example: “write five pages of my dissertation prospectus” or “design experiment for investigating probabilistic posturing.” Staying on task has been as simple as making sure I keep that one goal in mind. By setting a key goal for each day, I know what I need to focus on, and even more importantly, I know what I can ignore.
Knowing what and how to prioritize is critical to ensuring that your daily goal gets done. Many of us suffer from the “tyranny of the e-mail inbox.” But you really do have to stop and ask yourself why you’re beholden to some small box inside a small screen. Instead of letting the tiny inbox tell me what to do, I choose to let the small stuff that comes across the desk during the day fall off in the interest of accomplishing the core task. If it is really that important -- someone will call you. That urgent, time-sensitive thing is probably not urgent and time-sensitive to you. If you never accomplish the tasks that keep your life going, and that keep you marching towards your goals, no one is going to accomplish it for you. Do this for long enough and pretty soon you’ll be very far away from where you wanted to be. Ultimately, this means prioritizing yourself over the demands (which are sometimes unreasonable) of others.
Have you ever heard the saying, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any way will get you there?” I firmly believe that. I also firmly believe that people who get derailed and sidetracked when they are working forget their goals. Keep that daily goal in firm focus and you won’t go wrong. You’ll be able to look back on 365 days of work at the end of the year and say: I accomplished 365 goals. Lots of people don’t accomplish that much in their LIFETIME.
Breaking up a larger task into a smaller tasks, in the form of a list or an outline, is also a really useful tool. Would you make your grocery list by writing “buy groceries”? No, you’d want to write out the specific things you need. So why would you approach life less diligently than you’d approach a grocery list? You’ll never finish writing your dissertation, novel, or finishing the big project if you put it on your to do list as, “write dissertation” or “work on project.” Those big ticket items are more like overarching goals. If you were planning to work on a project, you might break it into smaller subtasks such as “create project schedule,” or “determine delegation plan,” or “outline project presentation.” Each item on your task list should be actionable and specific -- start each item with a verb such as “write” or “study” or “buy.”
Another way to break a larger task up into smaller ones is outlining. Yes, this is a skill you learned in middle school, but that doesn’t make it any less effective or easy to pull off. Outlining forces you to make your thoughts explicit, exposing them to the harsh light of reality. In your mind, a task might seem deceptively easy. Once you start writing down the skeleton of what you need to actually get something done, the veneer of ease and simplicity starts to get stripped away. I like outlining using logic as my guide: what follows from what came before it? If my bigger task is, “write dissertation” and I break that up into “write chapters 1-10”, those sub-tasks are not informative AT ALL. Those sub-tasks will just sit there, like a fallow field. But if I write, “write introduction that describes how the science of judgment and decision making came to be” and then break up that larger task into smaller ones such as “discuss the fathers of the field, Herb Simon, Ward Edwards”, “discuss the main competing frameworks between analytic and intuitive judgment”, that level of detail lends itself to being tackled. Vague, abstract tasks on your list will just sit there and pile up, never to be accomplished, making you feel worse and worse.
Another added benefit of breaking up a larger task into smaller ones? It makes the larger task seem more conquerable -- like taking small steps up the side of a huge mountain. Each small step, taken on its own, seems doable, while trying to summit the peak can seem incredibly daunting. For example, if you want to write an e-book in 30 days, plotting and planning in detail makes a seemingly impossible task doable. Use this psychological trick to your advantage! Breaking up a larger task into smaller tasks also gives you a sense of micro-accomplishment as you cross things off your list. Don’t discount the motivating power of these small victories. In my mind, having any victories in a day means that it was a good day.
I’ll leave you with this: “one foot in front of the other.” That’s a saying I picked up from my Army days. That was something I repeated to myself all the time. Repeating this mantra helped carry me through the last mile of a forced march at 0500 in the Arizona desert carrying a 45 lb pack. At the time I weighed around about 100 lbs soaking wet, so that huge a portion of my body weight. But I made it in under three hours. I still sometimes say this mantra to myself when I face a particularly daunting task. When you’re really struggling, tell yourself you’ll get through. One step, one page, one assignment, one memo -- remind yourself that you will get there eventually. And you will. Believe it. Believe in yourself.
Principle 2 Summary
- Set a daily goal for yourself and keep it in focus at all times.
- Break a larger task up into smaller tasks.
- When breaking up larger tasks into smaller ones, ensure they are actionable and specific items, vague and abstract tasks never get done.
Principle 3: Stay in shape efficiently
Why is working out so important and what does it have to do with being productive? Did you know that being fit is a great cognitive enhancer? Not only will you feel better if you exercise, but you’ll also think better. Being in shape increases your work output rate and makes you more efficient at getting around -- which means, you guessed it, being more productive!
So what do I do at the gym? I really like this Men’s Journal routine which is formed around the idea that all effortful human movement falls in three categories: pushing, pulling, and extending your hips. I do all eight of those movements every other day. It is simple:
- pull ups
- decline bench crunches
- dumbbell bench press
- weighted lunges
- dumbbell shoulder press
- kettlebell swings
- seated rows (usually done on a universal machine)
I generally do 4 sets of 10 for exercises 3 through 8. For pull ups, I normally do 10 sets of 10 pull ups for a total of 100 pullups, and for dips I do 4 sets of 20 dips each. Why the focus on pull ups? Doing them involves activating the muscles in most of your upper body, arms, back, and triceps, at the same time. And you can build in core-focused reps by doing leg raises after your pull ups are complete. Many people consider pull ups the most essential and complete exercise out there. Pull ups can also be done anywhere! When I was on active duty, I kept a door pull up bar in the trunk of my car. I even took one with me on my first deployment to Iraq. Whenever I was feeling tired, I’d go and knock out ten pull ups. After that, I wasn’t tired any more.
It usually takes me 30-45 minutes to get through this circuit. And the faster I get it done, the more cardio I am able to simultaneously work in, as each exercise leaves me breathing hard.
When I run, I generally look for scenic spots and inspiration. I generally run for 30-40 minutes at a moderate pace (usually keeping my heartrate around 160bpm). Running is also a great time to gather your thoughts and generate new ideas. If I’m feeling hungry for knowledge, I’ll fire up a podcast like Tim Ferriss or Hardcore History. If I’m feeling like zoning out, I’ll listen to music. Running has been shown to keep people young and you don’t even need to do a lot of it: new research suggests that you only need to run five or six miles a week to reap the health benefits. The best part about running? It is completely free and requires very little equipment. A solid pair of running shoes and some earbuds for your smartphone will do!
Other people I know turn their commutes into their exercise time, either running or biking to work. It was even purported that before the Anacostia River was closed off to recreational traffic, people used to paddle and kayak to the Pentagon. Now that’s a great use of time -- you beat the traffic AND got your daily work out in.
Now I know what you’re thinking. But you’re already in shape! It’s easy to stay in shape if you’re in shape already. I wasn’t always in shape. Actually, the way my high school friends remember it, I was the chubby short kid who ran slowly and didn’t make it past freshman year of track while everyone else ran cross-country or played varsity football. One day after senior year of high school and after breaking my wrist, I got tired of feeling sluggish and out of shape. I started walking around the neighborhood for 15 minutes a day. I gradually increased that to 30 minutes a day and then I started to jog a bit. If you’re not in shape, take an incremental approach to getting there, just like I discussed in Principle 2. If you can run to the end of the block one day, try making it to two blocks the next day. And so on and so forth. If you want to do more reading about tips for getting started down the journey to getting in shape, Reddit has one of the best beginner’s guides out there, absolutely free for anyone to look at. There are lots of tips in there for starting small and going from there. The bottom line: you have to find what works for you. And then do it. Ruthlessly and efficiently. Efficiency is essential to productivity and productivity is essential to success!
Principle 3 Summary
- Stay in shape because it helps you think.
- Be efficient with your exercise routine.
- Get started–start somewhere and stick with it!
Principle 4: Eating intelligently by smartly designing your meals
To be at our most productive, we have to eat right. While this is a good general rule to follow, it is much easier written than done. Eating right requires knowledge about what to put into our bodies, the effort to acquire or make these meals, the desire to consume the meals, and the time to put the food into our bodies.
Choosing the right foods isn’t just about “dieting”, a word which most of us associate with restricting the kinds and amounts of foods we put into our bodies. While that may be the popular interpretation of the word, a more accurate use of the word would be ingesting the appropriate kinds of foods. There are more diet systems out there than we can count on our fingers and the number of people who claim to have good diet advice probably exceeds the number of stars in the universe. We highly recommend Dr. Michael Greger and Michael Pollan, both of whom emphasize healthy and natural foods.
For example, Pollan countenances Americans to follow his pithy “Food Rules” for eating right. His 64 rules can be distilled down even further into seven rules which he summarized for WebMD in 2009:
- Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. “When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can’t pronounce, ask yourself, “What are those things doing there?”
- Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.
- Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store. Real food tends to be on the outer edge of the store near the loading docks, where it can be replaced with fresh foods when it goes bad.
- Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot. “There are exceptions -- honey -- but as a rule, things like Twinkies that never go bad aren’t food.”
- It is not just what you eat but how you eat. “Always leave the table a little hungry.” “Many cultures have rules that you stop eating before you are full. In Japan, they say eat until you are four-fifths full. Islamic culture has a similar rule, and in German culture they say, ‘Tie off the sack before it’s full.’”
- Families traditionally ate together, around a table and not a TV, at regular meal times. It’s a good tradition. Enjoy meals with the people you love. “Remember when eating between meals felt wrong?”
- Don’t buy food where you buy your gasoline. In the U.S., 20% of food is eaten in the car.
Learning about what counts as healthy food and internalizing this knowledge makes it easier to sustain healthy eating.
Armed with the right knowledge, the next step is to develop a system for acquiring the raw ingredients and turning them into food. Luckily, the rise of grocery delivery services makes it incredibly convenient (not necessarily easy, there’s a key difference here) to schedule food delivery. FreshDirect, Peapod, Amazon Fresh, and Instacart are probably all options available to you. Peapod and FreshDirect (I’ve used both services in different cities and found Peapod to be better in Washington DC and FreshDirect better in Philadelphia) both offer memberships and discounts on regular deliveries. Meal kit delivery services such as Blue Apron, HelloFresh, and Marley Spoon are also good options for healthier cooking, although beware that some of the meals that come from these prepared kits are not all that healthy.
One trick that has helped me squeeze more time out of the day is cooking multiple meals at the same time. With Blue Apron, this has meant ordering the “family” size meals and storing the extra food in appropriately sized Tupperware containers. Investing in a set of Tupperware containers is extremely helpful since running out of containers is extremely inconvenient. Tupperware is extremely portable and durable, making it an essential tool for bringing your fantastically healthy and tasty meal to work.
Other methods for “stretching” healthy meals include crock pot cooking, once a month cooking (aka freezer cooking), and making large batches of stir fry. Since you’re going to be cooking and have done all of the prep work to get utensils out and must clean up afterwards, you might as well make multiple meals. Where people go wrong with this method is in cooking meals that they do not enjoy eating, leading to food sitting in the freezer or fridge for an extended period of time and ultimately to waste. Along with the knowledge for eating right, you also have to get the self-knowledge to know what kinds of food you enjoy.
Finally, remember to schedule time during the day to eat your food. Lots of people who are incredibly busy wind up forgetting to eat. Food gives you the energy to be productive and being hungry is no way to go through life. Schedule time for yourself or make sure you eat with a friend. It’ll ensure that you are staying healthy and fueling yourself appropriately.
Principle 4 Summary
- Build the knowledge for how to eat right, as well as the self-knowledge for what you like to eat
- Cook more than one meal at a time and store it in Tupperware
- Ensure you set aside time during the day to eat!
Principle 5: Understand yourself to find your motivation
Have you ever found yourself struggling with some assignment or task? Have you struggled to figure out why? Do you procrastinate a lot? Even after you tell yourself you’ll get something done, do you wind up wasting your time reorganizing your DVD collection or cleaning your apartment (or on Facebook)?
Dan Pink’s book Drive, about intrinsic motivation, summarizes the last fifty years or so of psychological research into motivation. In it, Pink focuses on three principles that keep people motivated (beyond money and extrinsic factors):
- Autonomy - being able to set your own priorities and path
- Mastery - working on a task where you can get demonstrably better at it over time
- Purpose - doing something for more than just yourself or monetary gain
Finding a job or creating one (why do some people always think they have to work for someone else?) that gives you the freedom to explore, where you feel like you’re making progress each day, and which serves a greater good, is a really great way to supercharge your productivity. Why? Because you’ll WANT to be productive. That drive will come from inside you.
Did you ever just sit down and unexpectedly spend hours or days on a task or assignment? Did you get up from the computer wondering where the hours went, but feeling satisfied and refreshed? Where did that internal energy come from? And how can we, if we can, recapture that seemingly boundless internal energy? The research shows that it likely came from these intrinsic factors, such as seeking fulfillment or accomplishing some larger societal goal. Restoring our natural sense of exploration and wonder in discovering is essential to helping us push the productivity boundary through the intrinsic motivation that lies in each of us. Replicating those factors is the best way to get you and keep you at your productivity peak.
Extrinsic motivation, like a new car or a pair of new shoes or some kind of award at work or a big raise, can only keep you happy for so long. Eventually those external rewards wear off. Have you ever bought something, like a new jacket or a new gadget, thinking that it would make you really really happy, only to discover later on that you don’t even notice this thing anymore? You got used to it and the novelty doesn’t excite you -- you don’t notice the gadget’s neat features anymore, they’re just sort of there now. You’ve become habituated to this new thing, which is a common occurrence that happens with every material thing! You can’t just keep trying to fuel your work with these artificial aids, ultimately you have to find that inner drive to keep you going.
This is not to say that extrinsic rewards aren’t useful or effective in the short term. Lots of people will use small rewards, an effective strategy as long as the net effect is positive. For instance, you might promise yourself a movie rental or an episode of an HBO show when you finish the chapter or complete studying for the exam. With something nice to look forward to, you could be motivated to finish what you need to do. Just be aware that these kinds of reward systems tend to get blunted in the long-run and you will require bigger and bigger rewards to get the same effect. Not too many of us can afford to promise ourselves a Tesla as long as we complete an important project.
The corollary to the intrinsic motivation principle is figuring out what you’re good at and doing that. For some people, what they are good at may not be what they think they enjoy. But why do we insist on everyone doing what they love? Author and computer science professor Cal Newport calls this the “passion trap,” the idea that everyone has to find their passion when things are a tad more complicated than that. Newport highlights how this idea might be making lots of people even more unhappy than they otherwise would be. What the search for passion ignores is that passion and ability go hand in hand with each other-- the better you are at something, the more likely it is that you’ll be passionate about it.
Let’s say you’re a great programmer. Or a great human resources representative. If you can make a great living doing those things, why not continue doing them in order to build up capital for other endeavors? For all of the recent talk about “do what you love,” I think that perhaps the conversation has gone a little too far in that direction. Maybe you don’t “love” what you do -- but you’re good at it and the job provides major societal and personal benefits, or opportunities to develop a new ability. The great thing about this situation is that you can take what you earn at your job and trade it for the time and space to find what you think you could truly love.
Motivation is hard to come by. Being great at something is hard to come by. Don’t throw either down the drain and seek to maximize both.
Principle 5 Summary
- Be intrinsically motivated -- because those extrinsic factors are fleeting and won’t always be there.
- Use self-rewards sparingly, short-term achievement goodies do work, but their effectiveness decreases over time, necessitating more and more self-bribery.
- If you can’t figure out what motivates you, do what you’re good at, and then trade the time and money saved to find yourself.
Principle 6: Practice and grit make things easier and help you achieve flow
Once you’ve found that thing that motivates you or that you’re at least somewhat good at doing, it is essential to harness that energy and turn it into expertise. You’ve probably never heard of Anders Ericsson, but he’s a researcher who for years has studied how people develop expertise. He is considered the world’s foremost expert on experts. You probably have heard of a guy named Malcolm Gladwell though -- he popularized Ericsson’s research in the form of the “10,000 hour rule” in his book Outliers. The rule refers to how much practice you have to have within a domain to reach truly expert levels of performance.
The great thing about practice is that, most of the time, all it requires is your energy and some time. It doesn’t cost you money -- just a little bit of motivation to get your butt off of the couch. If you’re not productive at work, you’re probably not going to get there by watching television. So do yourself a favor -- turn off the TV or Netflix and set for yourself the goal of practicing at least one hour a day at something. Maybe it’s cooking. Maybe it’s writing. Maybe it’s programming. Maybe it’s making PowerPoint presentations or speaking publicly. Maybe you’ve always wanted to start a blog or a podcast or learn to knit. Whatever it may be, you can get better at it, but you need to put in the work to get there. It isn’t just going to appear out of thin air for you. The better you are at something, the more efficient you’ll be at it.
People who are able to consistently practice probably have what Angela Duckworth’s research finds is the most important factor for success: grittiness. Grit means having the determination to keep going in the face of adversity. Unlike IQ, which is relatively fixed, grit has been shown to be something you can develop over time! It starts with mindfulness and breathing exercises. Just taking a moment to pause when you come to a stressful juncture can be helpful to giving you that small boost to KEEP GOING. Developing your grit will make you better at hard, effortful practice, which will pay significant dividends down the road.
Practice is also essential for achieving what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls flow states. Flow, or the feeling of full immersion in a task, is that experience you’ve had when you hit all your shots in a basketball game or wrote 10 pages of your paper in a single sitting. You’re in the zone. You’re feeling inspired. You’re feeling invincible. When you’re firing on all cylinders, you can handle and get tasks done before you’re even really consciously aware of it. But how do we get into that state?
Practice and grittiness lower the barriers for you to get to flow states. The more you practice and the grittier you become, the easier tasks will be for you. What took you a few hours in the past will take half an hour and feel easier and easier. We’ll talk more later about how to structure your environment to achieve flow states -- but recognize that it probably takes development of expertise and a base-level of grittiness to get to flow states reliably.
Principle 6 Summary
- Practice lowers cognitive task barriers and boosts productivity.
- Keep working at tasks until you’re able to reliably achieve flow states.
Principle 7: Track your time use and shift it towards productive things
Time. It is our most valuable resource, yet we often treat it like it is something we can waste. Knowing how you use your time and optimizing time-use is a huge part of maximizing productivity. As Ben Franklin said, “Lost time is never found again.”
The first step to fixing a problem about yourself is to recognize that you have one. We spend so much of our time in front of computers now, it’s easy to get sucked into the vortex of Facebook, Twitter, Buzzfeed quizzes, and YouTube videos. But can you really know if you’re spending too much time on these sites if you don’t measure it? I only recently, within the last year, started diligently tracking my internet usage. I use RescueTime, a free Chrome extension, to do it. I tell RescueTime what sites I consider to be “time wasters” and it gives me both a detailed breakdown of time use, how much time I spent on sites I consider “productive” (Google Docs vs. Gmail), and a weekly report.
How do I use my time when I’m online and in front of a computer?
I used RescueTime to track my internet time use over the span of a month or so. Gmail is still dominant and that’s not surprising since many of my collaborators are not local to Philadelphia. However, I’ve been making a concerted effort to streamline my own communications habits. I’m definitely getting better at checking and responding to email and I’m also spending less time on Facebook (down to about 30 minutes a day).
Another great tool for figuring out your time use is to use your Google Calendar or a planner to block out parts of your day. An analog tool that is also useful and much cheaper than buying a customized notebook is to use a 10x10 grid with each square representing 10 minutes (such as the one here http://waitbutwhy.com/2016/10/100-blocks-day.html). Imagine your day as 100 10-minute blocks of time. That’s all you have to spend each day. That means that watching a sports game on TV likely takes 25 blocks. That’s ¼ of all of the productive blocks you have a day. In short, be careful with how you use your time! Before you know it, you’ll have spent all your blocks. And these are blocks you’ll never get back.
What kinds of principles should people follow to manage time? I’ve found Peter Drucker’s five principles of time management are excellent. They are:
- know where time goes
- focus on outward contributions
- build on strengths
- concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results
- make effective decisions
While Drucker’s principles are directed at managers, they also apply to everyone (since you are the manager of yourself!). Drucker is really telling us about how comparative advantage, or focusing on what you’re good at, applies to how we spend our time. Unless you really have to, why spend time on something you’re not good at? Why not offload the things like changing the oil on your car to someone else so that you can focus on the things you’re good at? If you get rid of the unnecessary things in your life and leverage your strengths, you’ll soon find yourself with a lot more time and resources to be productive. Do you really want to spend time on the phone dealing with customer service or scheduling things? Both productivity gurus Ramit Sethi and Tim Ferriss recommend outsourcing these cognitively simple tasks.
Lastly, by focusing on your own outcomes and contributions, you’ll have a tangible and measurable bottom line accounting at the end of the day: what did I accomplish with the 17-18 hours I spent awake today? If the answer to that question doesn’t make you happy, you know it’s time to make some changes in the ways you spend your time! Being efficient with your time is the greatest, most impactful change you can make. Start now before it’s too late!
Principle 7 Summary
- Track your time use; if you don’t know about problems, you can’t fix them.
- To quickly track time use think of your day as 100 blocks of 10 minutes. You have 100 blocks to spend each day.
- Be efficient by optimizing what you spend your time doing.
Principle 8: Self-control doesn’t come easy – set yourself up for success
Self-control. It is one of the important things that separates us from animals. Humans are blessed with this capability. The first step to achieving self-control is to limit your contact with the things that keep you away from your goals and the kind of person you ultimately want to be. If you’re on a diet, would you put a chocolate cake on the kitchen table and leave it there, calling to you temptingly like some kind of siren? If you’re trying to quit smoking, would you go hang out in a smoky bar or take your breaks at the office smoke pit? The answer to both is no. Achieving and maintaining self-control is hard enough, so why would you sabotage yourself before you’ve even had a chance to succeed?
Limiting exposure to goal obstacles also includes people. People who are constantly negative towards you and your goals or who are actively encouraging you to do things contrary to your self-interest are not the least bit helpful. Like the alcoholic friend who tries to get you to drink even though they know you’re in rehab, these are people you need to try to limit your interaction with if at all possible.
One other major roadblock to productivity is social media and email. Getting yourself away from the time-suck that is your Facebook feed can require a supreme act of self-control. If you can’t control yourself from checking Facebook or Twitter every ten seconds, then one easy way of doing this is to hide the apps off of the home screen and nest it in a category you rarely use, several pages in. In my browser, I use Stayfocused, a free chrome extension, to block certain sites (e.g., Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter, those notorious time-suckers) when I really need to get stuff done. You can set some sites as non-blocked, such as Google Docs or Wikipedia, and set the rest of the internet as blocked for a certain period of time. That’s what Stayfocused calls the “nuclear option”. I have to admit that when I’m really demotivated, I do have to resort to the nuclear option. It works.
I also turned on the “social” and “promotions” tabs on my Gmail, which pushed all of those Twitter ads and fundraising request emails to a box I never have to check I unless I really want to. I’m an “inbox zero” person, so this has helped me reduce the amount of times I check email daily by tenfold. Finally, on days I have to get a lot of work done, I limit my email checking to once every two hours.
Another great way of imposing self-control? Set up an accountability system. Consider getting some trusted friends involved. For example, if you need to get an assignment done and aren’t feeling particularly motivated to do so, making it publicly known that you have to do it and that if you don’t, you’ll impose some kind of self-punishment may give you that motivational boost to get that thing done. On the flipside, you might want to consider giving yourself some kind of positive reinforcement at the end. For example, if you get the assignment done, you’ll allow yourself to watch that movie you’ve been dying to see. The great thing about exercising self-control is that once you’ve set up your systems and start putting the principles into practice, it gets easier over time. Talk about a great return on investment.
Principle 8 Summary
- Don’t make self-control harder than it already is; remove temptations whenever possible.
- Self-control gets easier with more and more practice, when it becomes second nature.
- Develop systems for enforcing self-accountability.
Principle 9: Use feedback to adjust and optimize
Becoming more productive is a skill like any other skill. Some people assume that productivity is a matter of natural ability, but in reality, productivity is a set of skills that can be developed by following the principles set out in this guide.
Anders Ericsson, as mentioned in Principle 6, whose work inspired Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, developed the useful concept of deliberate practice. What makes this effortful and difficult practice work is feedback.
Feedback is information on the efficacy of our methods, whether things turned out the way we intended or not. Accurate feedback is often difficult to come by. To help us get better over time, we need to first recognize the kinds of information necessary for improving our own productivity habits. We then need to set up systems for capturing accurate feedback, and finally, we need to set up a system for reviewing and integrating this information back into our behavioral patterns.
What kinds of information are helpful for boosting our productivity? First, information on how we spend our time (frequency data) is important. Next, information on how much time we spend on each activity (density data) is important. Finally, information on how effective our efforts are in relation to our desired outcomes helps tie together the frequency and density data to what we really care about: achieving our goals.
Our calendars are one good tracking mechanism for collecting, examining, and integrating frequency and density data. Once a month, I review my past month’s calendar to look for patterns:
- How much time am I spending on conference calls and meetings?
- How often did I adhere to my writing schedule?
- How often did I go over time in terms of what I had originally budgeted for a specific activity?
- What are the biggest time wasters on my schedule?
Answering these questions on a regular basis helps me adjust my energy and efforts the next month. I also endeavor to integrate information on my Internet usage, which is closely tied to my productivity. I look closely at the feedback reports I get from apps such as RescueTime and Webtime Tracker. RescueTime generates automated weekly reports that tell me how productive I was that week by comparing my time use to the previous week. These apps compose the core of my data collection system and the data collection doesn’t require any additional effort on my part.
An essential part of this system is setting aside time to review this information. It doesn’t take a lot of time to accomplish but it is essential to knowing how to adjust your behavior.
So develop a system for review the same way you would set up a system for collecting the data. I use calendar reminders to let me know when it is time to look at the collected data. After all, without analysis, the data just sits there, uninterpreted.
Finally, once I’ve finished reviewing the information, I use it to inform how I need to change for the upcoming week or month. Did I spent too much time on email last week? Maybe I needed to coordinate a conference or some other task that required a lot of emailing back and forth. Perhaps some of that time could have been better spent coordinating via a videochat or conference call. The information is essential for calibrating our behavior and getting the most out of our precious time.
Principle 9 Summary
- Use feedback to ensure that we’re learning and adapting over time
- Set up a system to collect & analyze the data
- Ensure that that analysis forms a complete feedback loop so that ultimately our behavior becomes more optimal over time
Principle 10: Streamline your life by automating
To become more productive, sometimes you need to find more time. There’s an easy principle to follow to find more time. One thing that the Internet is making easier and easier to cut out of your life is the need to physically go to a store or wait in line. Now that you can order groceries and renew your driver’s license online, why go to these places at all? You’re only setting yourself up to be inconvenienced. With the proliferation of free shipping and all-inclusive memberships like Amazon Prime, you can easily set yourself up with a system that delivers all of life’s essentials to your mailbox.
Cutting out these inefficiencies in your life is something I wrote about in this blog post. Services like Amazon’s “Subscribe and Save” and Blue Apron’s dinner kit delivery service have revolutionized my life in a good way. I remember when I was growing up, Sundays weren’t about football. Sundays were long days spent at Costco when the whole family would go and buy essentials at the store together. Now, those things just get delivered to my front door. My Sundays have been rescued, freeing up time that I can now use productively, like writing this e-book!
Other methods and products I’ve used to save time include: subscription services such as quip toothbrushes (they deliver a fresh brush-head and toothpaste every three months, automatically), Dollar Shave Club (set your shaving needs on autopilot), and, of course, auto-pay for all credit cards and other accounts. I also stopped drinking coffee and moved to using a product that our company produces called Starter. The less time you spend on these matters the more time you have to spend on the things that really matter.
This principle also relates back to my earlier point about wearing the same or similar clothing each day. I know lots of people, and I’m sure you do too, that spend all day at work surfing clothing sites and following fashion trends. I have a few go-to brands which have consistent sizing, so that when something I own wears out, I can easily put another set on order. For example, I’ve been wearing Nike Pegasus size 8.5 shoes since 2007, and continue to order new Pegasus shoes as the old ones wear out and new ones are released. I treat my Merrell Moab Ventilators the same way. It is helpful to know these things about the products you rely on, so that you know that whatever sizes you’re ordering are going to fit well without having to go to the store to try them on. Ultimately, these automations and productivity hacks save gas, save time, and allow you to spend your time doing the things you really want to do–like being productive and accomplishing those life goals!
Principle 10 Summary
- Online services such as Amazon Prime and Blue Apron make it easier to cut trips to the store and standing in lines out of your life.
- Use subscription services for items that you’d rather not spend time thinking about.
- Save time by buying from the same brands.