Productivity Hacks

The world is obsessed with productivity hacks.

Lifehacker gets many millions of visitors every month, the supplement industry is like $50 billion a year, and we all listen to Tim Ferriss’ podcast, which in effect covers the morning routines and productivity hacks of those more successful than us.

We all want to squeeze more out of our days.

The pursuit of this is noble; the reality of the pursuit is often frustrating, ineffective, and filled with advice from charlatans (best satirized by this brilliant article).

I’ve tried my fair share of “productivity hacks,” and I still experiment with different tools, tricks, and routines to optimize my life. But in these trials, I’ve learned a few things, mostly unsexy lessons about the value of the fundamentals – eat, sleep, and exercise.

This article is sort of my compendium on what I’ve learned so far about optimizing my own productivity.

I’ll cover the basics, the things that will get you 90% of the way there and how to tackle them. Then I’ll also cover the remaining, more volatile 10% of productivity hacks that most articles cover as the only productivity hacks, like pomodoro timers, supplements, and sleep induction mats. If you don’t want to hear me lecture about the basics, click here to skip to the fun stuff.

If you’ve ever wondered about how to increase your productivity and squeeze more out of life, you’re in the right place.

The Fundamentals > Productivity Hacks

The boring stuff is usually the true stuff.

You shouldn’t eat too much sugar or overload on any food, you should exercise a bit, and you should sleep well. You should work a job you like, instead of a job you hate. You should surround yourself with good people and ideas so your work is directed towards the correct path.

These are the basic, the things that will control ~90% of your life’s “productivity” (silly word, bad to aim for solely productivity – will cover that in a bit). If you don’t have this stuff in order, you’re wasting your time with keyboard shortcuts and alarm clocks that roll around on the floor.

In my estimation, we can narrow the basics down into three categories:

  • Define and live by a set of principles (orient yourself)
  • Work towards something that matters (don’t work on something you hate)
  • Eat, sleep, and exercise well.

A Principled Life: Why That Matters

Principles are where everything begins.

If you don’t define clear principles for yourself, you may be trying to hack your productivity on a mission that doesn’t matter to you, or worse, on something you actually hate. For example, squeezing more out of your day if you’re marketing cigarettes may not be ideal, for anyone.

Imagine being the person from Intuit that lobbies the government to keep taxes complicated so they can keep charging to simplify them. We should hope that person is horribly unproductive.

That’s a good rule to live by: don’t try to be more productive if what you’re doing is bad.

Even something less strident, such as my principle to “Optimize for Interesting,” means that I couldn’t work at something that I didn’t feel was interesting. This is subjective (and it should be). I don’t think I’d be a happy lawyer or auto-mechanic, so being a more productive one wouldn’t help me. Optimizing my life to include a variety of activities, travel, and experiences is going to beat out money given equal consideration.

In my estimation, defining your principles helps you place yourself in a context that you like, with friends you like, and with information sources that you don’t regret consuming.

With these, we can check off a few pieces of common and wise “productivity” advice (which isn’t productivity advice – it’s advice on living a principled life):

  • Surround yourself with great people (you’re the average of the 5 people…)
  • Read a lot of good books (or drink from your preferred information source)
  • Be in a city or location that allows for serendipity in the path that you’re seeking

When you know what your values are and what you dislike, you can choose your friends accordingly.

One of my favorite recent things I’ve read is Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, one of which is “make friends with people who want the best for you.”

This is only possible when you know what “best for you” means. You’ll tweak and iterate up on this, but it helps first to define who you even want in your life.

Reading is something I credit a lot of my success and happiness to. Part of it is going down rabbit holes and serendipitously finding new things or recommendations, but most of it is starting at a place of genuine interest. More importantly, setting your principles can let you decide what information sources you don’t want in your life (CNN, gossip sites, or anything by a book or movie critic).

Finally, when you know what you want you know where you want to be. It’s difficult to become a great lawyer (truly great) in a small town. It’s tough to get funding for a SaaS company in Nebraska. Not impossible, the world is becoming smaller and more accessible with technology, but your city, where you spend almost all of your time, is something to consider.

Your principles will change and adapt with time (they should), but you should start defining them today. A variety of techniques can help you do that, some of which you may currently be doing already. Therapy might help. Talking with your friends, openly, definitely. Meditation helps you notice things.

One of the things that helped me the most with this was completing a Self Authoring program.

Reading Principles by Ray Dalio is also suggested.

Work Towards Something That Matters (but Especially, Not Something You Hate)

I touched on this before, but if you hate what you do, you shouldn’t try to get more productive at it (well, unless the only thing you hate about it is that you’re unproductive).

Sam Altman wrote a post on productivity recently (he beat me to the punch by like 2 weeks). In it, he writes on this point as well:

“It doesn’t 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…

…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.

I’ve learned 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 interested in.”

What’s meaningful to you?

  • Working on big budget, high risk projects?
  • Debugging and solving complex problems?
  • Communicating and turning complex issues into understandable narratives?

Figuring out what matters to you will make it a hell of a lot easier to put out better work.

When you do have a modicum of freedom and you don’t have to go work to put food on the table, it helps to think about things that really matter to you. I’m sure working on Headspace isn’t too grating for a Tibetan Monk, but it might be unnerving for them to work on corporate law.

Eat, Sleep, and Exercise Well: The Boring Yet Important Stuff

This may not be right for you, but after much trial and error it’s what’s right for me…

Food:

  • Don’t eat sugar
  • Don’t eat too much food
  • Don’t eat too little food
  • Eat natural, whole foods (meat, veggies, etc.)
  • Listen to your body and discover what it needs

Exercise:

  • Walk more
  • Get in the sun more
  • Do a variety of different exercises
  • Try to lift some weights once in a while or do HiiT
  • Listen to your body and discover what it needs

Sleep:

  • Don’t drink caffeine after 2 (even better, after noon)
  • Wake up at the same time every day
  • Don’t look at screens before bed
  • Make your room as dark as possible
  • Create a relaxing nighttime routine

The Last 10%: How to Hack Your Productivity

Here’s the fun stuff.

I’ve experimented a lot with supplements and productivity hacks. Not all of them work equally well.

The thing to note here is that if you don’t have the basics down, none of this matters. But if you have the basics down, these things can help a lot.

The math you need to worry about is compounding effects. If you increase your memory, focus, and creative output by 1% per day, that adds up over time. If you’re trying to do a variety of tasks, like balancing a demanding job with learning Spanish and machine learning, that 1% can mean the world.

The Importance of Trial and Error

Even with the basics, you need to try this stuff out for yourself. It turns out, humans are pretty variable even with core things like eating, sleeping, and exercise. Some of us can get by on 4 hours, some need 8. Some can eat bread, some can’t.

This also goes for the supplemental productivity stuff.

The snapshot of time I currently exist in came to be because of many years of experimenting and iterating. In fact, I’m still cycling through different hacks and habits, some of which will stick, most of which won’t.

The process I use: 30 day challenges. It’s enough time to see the effects of most things, but not too long that it’s a daunting commitment. I started most of my current habits with simple 30 day challenges.

 

Anyway, without further ado, here are the things I do to boost my productivity…

Supplements

I’ve got a pretty bangin’ supplement cabinet.

I drink a lot of coffee (3-4 cups a day), and have recently switched to Four Sigmatic’s mushroom coffee (it has Lion’s Mane and Chaga). There’s a good amount of research supporting both Lion’s Mane and Chaga, and it tastes almost the same as my other coffee, so why not?

With my coffee, I also take L-Theanine. This blunts the jittery effects of coffee and makes me calmer throughout the day. I do this maybe 4-5 days a week, not every day.

Not sure if this counts as a supplement, but I also sometimes have Bulletproof coffee. I put a tablespoon of grass fed butter plus some MCT oil in my coffee. I used to do this every day, now I just do it maybe twice a week.

I also fast 4 days per week. I stop eating at 8pm and start again at noon the next day (a 16 hour fast). I actually really enjoy my productivity on fasting days.

Another supplement I’ve taken a lot in the past is bacopa monniera, which has positive effects on memory, attention, and anxiety. I’ve recently started buying a stack from Legion Athletics called Ascend, that contains bacopa but also other nootropics (such as Alpha GPC, CDP-Choline, etc.).

Other than that, I take some staples: fish oil, vitamin D, and a multivitamin.

For weight lifting, I take creatine, whey protein (after lifting), and I’ve recently started taking BCAAs during longer workouts.

Sometimes, for sleep I’ll take some reishi mushroom or ashwaganda, though not very regularly. I also use a Spoonk mat to help me get to sleep faster. I include this in the supplements section instead of the basics because, while helpful, it’s definitely a “last 10%” kind of helpful.

I’ve taken modafinil and adderall in the past for productivity and alertness, though I prefer not to because the downside probably outweigh the upsides. Honestly, I don’t feel the need to have that same productivity rush anymore like those stimulants give you, I’d much rather just enjoy life.

Meditation and Spirituality

I meditate every day, first thing in the morning. Currently, I’m doing a 30 day challenge where I meditate 30 minutes a day, but I usually just meditate for 15 minutes. Since I’ve started doing 30 I’ve noticed a difference in my attention and anxiety levels through the day (a positive difference). I think I’ll keep doing the whole meditation thing.

I don’t really do anything else, here, like pray or whatever. I do yoga a lot, which is sort of like moving meditation. None of this is done with the explicit goal of productivity, though, and I think those who meditate to become more productive are missing the point and are sort of weirdos.

Thinking Differently

Most of what makes my work special is that I break things down to the core problem and see solutions in unique ways (or at least I try to).

To do that, I live a varied life with lots of time spent outdoors and with different types of people. That whole “you’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with” is cool and all, but sometimes it sounds boring to me. I like to spend time with people who challenge my opinions, not simply with those I look up to.

The same goes for the content I consume. It’s lots of varies material, from finance to history to politics and more. I like Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, Tim Ferriss, James Altucher, but I also like Planet Money, Radio Lab, Not So Standard Deviations, and Analytics Power Hour.

I almost never read marketing or explicit business books. I barely read marketing or business blogs unless I’m seeking a specific solution or really respect the author (e.g. Simo Ahava or CXL).

You may or may not consider this a “productivity hack,” but I find it vastly reduces the amount of time and stress I have to spend to solve problems.

Learning Hacks

Learning for me is mostly a function of four things:

  • Extended period of quiet and intense focus
  • Active reiteration of ideas (the Feynman Technique)
  • Spaced repetition
  • Short periods of free thinking/non-focus (e.g. day dreaming and walks)

A good course to go through is Coursera’s bit on how to learn. The techniques there are all things I’ve habitualized.

Morning Routine

Waking up at the same time every day is the most important. Regardless of when you go to bed, set your alarm for the same time (also, I use an alarm that mimics the sunrise, and I sleep in a pitch black room using blackout curtains).

When I wake up, I make a coffee, do a Spanish lesson on Skype (twice per week, if no Spanish lesson, I read from a Spanish book), meditate for 10-20 minutes (I use Oak now, but I really prefer Sam Harris’s guided meditations), do three lessons of Duolingo, fill out the morning section of my 5 minute journal, then start working at exactly 9am. I do heads down focus work for three hours, and then do lunch followed by other stuff.

This routine is rigorous and, writing it down, it makes me sound a bit weird. But I work remote, and I’ve found it’s incredibly important to have a familiar routine to kick you into gear (especially when you travel 6 months a year and still need to get work done like I do).

Working Faster

I overcommit, put a lot (but not too much) on my plate, and drink a shit load of coffee. I don’t use a pomodoro or anything like that. It’s pure ambition and adrenaline over here.

I do use a few free software products to improve my efficiency.

First, I use HubSpot’s free sales tools to set up meetings, track emails, automate sequences, etc. Second, I use Dayboard Chrome Extension to set my tasks for the day and warn me not to use Reddit. I also have a whiteboard in my room that I manually write my checklist on. It helps me to write my tasks out in the physical world, not only on a computer.

In fact, almost all the work I do outside of Excel is first doodled on in a physical notepad.

Big one: I use a separate work computer that I never use social media or Reddit on.

I don’t have the Facebook app on my phone, I always have my phone on disturb mode, and I’ve muted all notifications except for Snapchats, texts, and Tinder.

On every piece of software I use, I learn the shortcuts. I try not to use the mouse when I’m in Excel. I’ve begun learning R & Python to speed up certain data analysis work.

Habits: The Only Thing That Actually Matters

The reason I like 30 day challenges for this kind of stuff is that it’s a non-daunting way to try something out while setting the building blocks of a habit.

Habits are all the matter.

If you’re only productive every time you pop an adderall, you’re not a productive person. If you meditate once every two weeks, it’s not very useful.

To really get cranking, it helps to get to a point of automaticity. As I mentioned, my morning routing is rigorous at this point. I don’t even think about it. That’s where the real magic of productivity kicks in.

But it starts with an experiment. It starts with a single day. Just keep in mind that sporadic productivity hacks are almost certainly going to distract more than they help.

Via Negative

This list has, so far, has had an overwhelmingly additive focus. Usually I’ve found it’s more effective to reduce your bad habits than it is to add good habits. If you remove sugar, for instance, that’s probably better than adding carrots and spinach (though both are good things to do).

My apologies for burying this at the bottom of the post, but if you have bad habits, it’s probably best to work on removing those first. Via negativa.

Conclusion

Just as there is no such thing as a “growth hack,” there is really no such thing as a “productivity hack.” Embedded in both terms is an assumption that the hack is a silver bullet. Such things don’t exist.

Rather, it’s a process of getting the fundamentals right, tweaking and experimenting, and scaling it out in the form of a habit (what you do repeatedly you become).

Looking at things this way takes the power away from charlatans selling cure-alls and from unhelpful hope at a single thing solving your problems (the pomodoro technique will never save you from a job you hate).

Get the basics right, try shit out (different things work for different people), and find a way to create good habits and remove bad ones.

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a Growth Marketer and Content Strategist based in Austin, Texas. He's a proud UW-Madison graduate and enjoys craft beer, lifting weights, and sailing.

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