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Mastering Productivity

Part 2: Principles 11 thru 20

Go back to Part 1 | Read Summary

Section 3: Set Yourself Up to Be Successful

Principle 11: Control and optimize your sensory environment

Where you work matters a lot because your environment helps to dictate how much work you get done. With the proliferation of open work spaces and more and more of our work being accomplished in a solitary way, our environment can be either beneficial or detrimental to the amount of work we get done. Paying careful attention to the kinds of environments that you work best in will help you optimize the conditions that will help you get stuff done.

Did you know that ambient noise helps you be more creative and get work done? One neat tool I use to create ambient noise is Noisli. If I know I’m going to be heading into a long coding session, I will generally turn on the electronic or chill radio stations on Apple Music and put on my Sennheiser headphones. I try to tune my auditory inputs to the task at hand. I generally avoid any music with words in it if I’m trying to write a journal article or code. But I love listening to pop music (I’ve been a huge pop music fan my whole life) when I’m working on creative stuff like designing PowerPoint presentations. You have to find what works for you.

Changing up your workplace visual environment is also important. Have you ever wondered why people get work done in coffee shops? Part of it is the aforementioned ambient noise factor. The other part is that usually coffee shops are unfamiliar places with unfamiliar faces. This actually heightens your stress level a bit. Research on stress, a staple of the psychological field for many years, has time and again shown that there is a proximal zone of stress.

Too little stress and you feel bored and likely unmotivated to work. Too much stress and you’re overwhelmed, unable to think clearly. You wouldn’t try to do work at a concert venue, for example. Coffee shops are one place to generate the environment for the proximal zone of stress. Another might be the local library or a co-working space.

Public places are good for working because other people serve as a built-in accountability mechanism. It is really hard to screw around when there’s a lot of other people around. This is particularly true in quiet places like libraries and co-working spaces. We are, ultimately, social animals, and having people around us who are also working hard makes it easier for us to work hard.

One tactic I used as an undergrad and that I have carried into my graduate school years is to work from a different place each day. On Mondays, I usually go into the lab to work, and I rotate among a neighborhood co-working space, my small windowless office in the lab, my home office which has lots of sunshine, and the library. I usually try to find a different place to work in the library. The change of scenery keeps me on my toes and keeps my visual surroundings from going stale. Staying out of the boredom zone can help you boost your productivity! Not only does this help boost productivity but research shows that changing your environment can also lead to better information retention and improved memory.

Principle 11 Summary

  • Create ambient noise to boost your productivity and creativity. 
  • Work in a public space to hold yourself accountable-- it is harder to mess around in public
  • Change up where you do work to keep yourself from falling into complacency.

Principle 12: Restrict your access and attention to social media and news

Unless social media manager or marketing guru is in your job title, chances are your job or profession doesn’t require you to use social media. It pays to keep in mind one thing about platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: the thousands of engineers who work there devote countless hours to figuring out how to keep you on the platform. Your smartphone and all the apps inside it are specifically designed to take advantage of your human psychology, honed over millions of years through evolutionary pressures. The actual brain chemistry is quite complicated but it all boils down to this: Facebook is designed to make you feel micro-doses of goodness.

While these hits of dopamine might feel good in the short-term, they won’t contribute to your long-term success. Your long-term success and big goals are what will make you feel lasting happiness and the memories you form with your friends and family are what will make up the foundational elements of real satisfaction.

Resisting the urge to check social media is hard–sometimes we do get valuable information on it and other times we have something valuable to add to the neverending stream. Others are similarly addicted to news, refreshing sites such as the New York Times, Fox News, and ESPN for the latest on current events. This, too, essentially forms the core behavior around procrastination or an unwillingness to face boredom.

There are some strategies for getting past the insanely smart designs of Facebook’s engineers. Apps such as Stayfocusd, Newsfeed Eradicator, and Freedom are ways to overcome the siren’s call of social media. But there are creative ways around these apps and thus you something stronger to resist. What you really need is a system for replacing these short dopamine hits. I recommend having both a physical system as well as a software system for doing so.

To remove the urge to look at my phone, I put it into a Mission Darkness Faraday Cage. No signals penetrate these super tough Mission Darkness bags. I don’t do this all the time but if I really want to get something done and have uninterrupted writing time, I go with the physical route.

The other part of my system involves all three of the aforementioned apps as well as Google Alerts. I set up daily alerts for news stories I’m following, which I get once a day. I also subscribe to news sites such as Just Security and Lawfare which go straight to my updates box in Gmail. That way, I’m not endlessly surfing news sites and I’m restricting my social media to after 10pm at night and for only 20 minutes daily. I’ve found that I have so much more time to do other things by taking a this approach to social media. have been rescued, freeing up time that I can now use productively, like writing this e-book!

For those of you who’re looking to take an even more extreme step, you can try what my buddy Pete did: delete all social media apps from his phone. He found that the native apps were very addictive but the moment he limited social media access to a web browser, he was less likely to spend time browsing. He, too, has freed up a bunch of time as a result.

Principle 12 Summary

  • Take an extreme approach to cutting out news and social media because they are going to take a similarly extreme approach to keeping you addicted
  • Use a combination of physical and software tools to help you resist the urge to use social

Section 4: Cut Out the Noise and Focus

Principle 13: Be efficient with your communications

Communication is the lifeblood of many knowledge industries. Efficient communications are doubly powerful: people are more likely to read your messages and you’ll be less likely to have misunderstandings which require time to fix. One rule of thumb I subscribe to is that before I send an email, I think about whether or not the message that is being delivered will result in more than one response. I try to deliver one message via email, but if I think the message or subject is going to require delivering more than two follow-up emails, I will email to schedule a phone call instead. Similarly, if we’re going to have a phone conference, I always demand an agenda or generate one ahead of time, so that we don’t wind up just spending a lot of time meandering from one point to another. I also try to limit all phone conferences to 30 minutes and always an hour, max. If a call or meeting lasts longer than that, you haven’t properly prepped for it.

Being efficient with email is a huge challenge. But consider this paradox: how many people do you know who complain about getting too many emails? It turns out that these people are likely causing their own email problems. People who generally get a lot of emails are also the ones who send a lot of emails, which engenders responses that require subsequent email communications. You can spend your entire day writing email and be extremely unproductive as a result. I probably receive 100 non-spammy non-marketing emails a day. Guess what? I try to limit my responses and I try to send only 10 emails a day. It has really helped me cut down on emails, which now only take up about ¼ of my online time per day. It used to be closer to half!

One tip for being more efficient with your communications is to employ the one-touch rule. Don’t tackle an email or communication until you’re ready to fully commit your attention to it. If you aren’t, you’ll likely have to explain yourself in greater detail which forces you to re-engage on something you could have crossed off your list the first time around.

Principle 13 Summary

  • If you don’t want to receive a lot of emails, don’t send a lot of emails.
  • Pick up the phone.

Principle 14: Avoid unnecessary meetings

How many times have you been sitting in a meeting and said to yourself, “this is such a waste of time?” I think one of the worst uses of time are regularly scheduled meetings, which seems to be an unchangeable fact of office life. Regularly scheduled meetings can be unproductive because it assumes that the people in the office have a regular rhythm. But just from observation, we know that offices don’t always operate at the same pace -- externally imposed deadlines, seasons, holidays, personal events such as the birth of children and deaths of parents, all of these things are happening all the time to people. Sometimes you need to meet more often -- other times you don’t -- and if your office isn’t one that calibrates to these demand signals, then avoiding these meetings altogether could boost your productivity.

If at all possible, start trying to extricate yourself from these time commitments that you know you aren’t going to get a good return-on-time-invested. Ignore that fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) feeling -- you aren’t missing anything. Start by learning which groups of people are most inefficient when it comes to meeting discussions and avoiding them. Figure out which regular meetings are for informational exchange (which can easily be done on sites like Basecamp, Slack, or email) and which are ones where actual decisions will be made. Finally, before attending the meeting, ask yourself if you’ll be contributing anything substantive to the discussion. If the answer is no, consider not going.

I know that skipping meetings all the time, or even most of the time, isn’t possible for everyone, but even executives and those with a lot of demands on their time can get themselves out of meetings. For example, Mark Cuban is famous for not going to meetings. Yes, he’s a billionaire so he can afford to do this because he’s not as reliant on others, but you’d be surprised at how far you can push the envelope on this. Ultimately, how can you know if you don’t try? You might be pleasantly surprised at how many unproductive meetings you can avoid.

Principle 14 Summary

  • Don’t go to unnecessary meetings.
  • Learn who will waste your time and avoid them.

Principle 15: Do more than one thing at once, but know the limits of multitasking

Another way of maximizing your time is to pair cognitively simple and cognitively taxing activities. For example, you can wipe down your kitchen counters and listen to the latest educational podcast or audiobook you love (I really enjoy listening to the Philosophize This! podcast while doing chores), or eat lunch while chatting with an associate about your latest project or idea, or talk about a new idea while you’re running or lifting weights. You’re basically engaging both thinking systems, (system 1, automatic and intuitive, and system 2, deliberate and effortful), of your brain simultaneously. This concept is most famously associated with Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Think about Systems 1 and 2 like this: instantaneous and seemingly effortless tasks like adding 2 + 2 engage system 1 processes (see how you knew the answer very quickly), while more laborious and difficult cognitive tasks such as writing an email or an e-book engage system 2 processes.

Now, you would potentially run into problems if you try to engage your system 2 on multiple tasks simultaneously. The research on multitasking is pretty unequivocal -- it doesn’t work and makes us less efficient. So unless you’re really superhuman, you’re probably tricking yourself into thinking you are better than the average person when it comes to multitasking. Small interruptions, to answer email, text messages, or look at notifications, can really disrupt your train of thought as well, requiring even more time to put yourself back into the task. So do yourself a favor when you are really trying to get work done -- put all of that stuff on mute!

However, there are some multi-tasking strategies that do work. One is the aforementioned pairing of automatic tasks with effortful tasks. Another is to work on related tasks together, a great suggestion from Entrepreneur magazine. This way you’re able to be more cognitively efficient when approaching the tasks that you need to get done. A strategy that is easy to implement and has been proven to work is to cognitively off-load to a list or step-by-step guide like I mentioned in Principle 2, thereby turning what was once a difficult and cognitively taxing task into something less so.

Principle 15 Summary

  • Pair mindless activity with cognitively taxing activity.
  • Don’t multitask too much, unless it is a number of activities in which you’re already well-practiced.

Principle 16: Know when to take a break, when to walk away, and when to relax

Sometimes you hit a wall, despite all of your efforts to push past it. Sometimes you reach the wall well after you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. Too often we work past this point and fail to realize that we’re just hitting our heads against a hard surface and not generating useful output. If you’re going to all of these lengths to optimize the rest of your life, why wouldn’t you also try to reduce the time when you aren’t able to be productive, in order to maximize your free and relaxation time? Sometimes good ideas come to us while we’re doing these other activities and science shows that sometimes we do have to let ideas marinate. Those shower thoughts can be excellent!

When you’re taking a short break (for example, 5-10 minutes for a short walk every other hour) it helps to get out of the environment you were working in. What are some things you can do to recharge?

  • Go outside and look at nature for a while. 
  • Listen to some music while you’re walking around. I sometimes like to turn on Apple Music’s Chill station for something easy-going and familiar. Other times I’ll just play something popular on YouTube. Right now that song is apparently Radiohead’s Creep.
  • See if a colleague will join you for a chat.
  • Stretch! I like to stretch my back and legs.
  • Do 10 pull-ups and get the blood pumping.
  • Meditate for ten minutes – it will help you center yourself and come back refreshed, and over the long term, meditation can improve your focus and manage stress. I like Headspace, which can help you train your mind to meditate effectively in ten minutes a day.

You’ll feel so much better afterwards. At night sometimes I’ll take a quick shower, which science suggests is a great way to juice your creativity.

For longer breaks, or days off, engaging your mind by going hiking or watching a movie is essential for resetting that motivational clock and restoring your self-control and work energy stores. Personally, I like to go running, listen to music, or watch the Knicks play basketball. 

Principle 16 Summary

  • Take breaks when you need to -- sometimes you need to recharge to tackle tasks.
  • Make the most of your recharging opportunities.

Principle 17: Procrastination isn’t about fear of work, it is about fear of disappointment

Almost everyone procrastinates. Putting off what we should do today until tomorrow is natural and not necessarily a problem. Until, of course, it is. The problem tends to sneak up on us precisely because of the nature of procrastination. When routinely delaying and deferring what you should be doing becomes habitual, that’s the beginning of a problem that can only spiral out of control if you don’t get ahead of it. What follows is a distillation of good work that I’ve read on countering procrastinating tendencies.

First, a personal story. I, like everyone else, struggle with procrastination. To this day, I have not overcome my tendencies, but I have developed mitigation strategies to make the effects of it less pronounced. Primarily, I replaced the typical procrastination activities such as cleaning your room, organizing your desk, watching television and movies, with productive activities. I’m lucky though—I enjoy reading about politics to forecast events (one of my side gigs), looking at real estate and modeling cash flow (another side gig), doing reviews of products I’ve purchased, as well as writing about personal growth. I understand this is atypical. When I’ve operated in a professional setting, I’ve tended to work in organizations where there are true emergencies: if I don’t do X someone else will get hurt or worse. That kind of motivation is deeply moving but it is also atypical.

Now that I’m in academia, most deadlines are self-imposed. Even working on a big research project like I am now, the lag between project start and project delivery can be weeks, months or years. This kind of situation is a recipe for procrastination: little urgency, little to no feedback, and it is unclear what kind of impact you’ll ultimately make with your efforts. I’m in my third year now and if it wasn’t for the development of good work habits, I probably wouldn’t have made it this far. I have the utmost respect for people who do research and write. On the surface, a job in the military might seem harder but the psychological battle you need to fight to keep going when you face a mountain of writing is very similar, if not more difficult, than a long ruck march for a lengthy patrol.

Why do we procrastinate? Most researchers point to a few factors: being afraid of failure, being afraid of imperfection, being afraid of getting started because the task seems insurmountable, being afraid of realizing you’re maybe not good enough for the task… starting to get the picture? Procrastination isn’t really about the task, it is mostly about fear. Overcoming this fear is essential to beating procrastination. Part of the issue is that we tend to discount our future selves compared to our current selves. What does this actually mean? It means that we don’t value our future time as much as we do the time that is right in front of our face, even though time is a non-replaceable resource. If we are comfortable now, sitting in front of the couch, we could situation so much that we never overcome the action threshold. This means we won’t get started doing what we need to do because what we need to do is so much more uncomfortable than our current state.

Here’s what I’ve found that works for procrastination:

  1. Stop blaming yourself and start motivating yourself. You’ll never get out of this mental rut if you are routinely negative about your situation. Like a car stuck in neutral, you need to coax your mind into gear.

  2. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’ve heard several former military people describe this as the key to getting through Navy SEAL training or other special forces selection. Too often we seek comfort now, not realizing that that comfort now is going to cost us comfort in the future. In fact, it will cost us the potential to realize who we could be. That is a near infinite cost: looking back on your life, how disappointed will you be with who you’ve become? Don’t let yourself get to that point.

  3. Plan with micro-tasks but stop over-analyzing the situation. You need a concrete plan to move forward but sometimes planning becomes a substitute for action. Don’t let that happen. Planning is essential but you can’t let that become the only mechanism you have. At some point you need to take action.

  4. Get rid of the distractions. In extreme cases, I’ve found myself using Stayfocusd on my browser and Freedom app on my phone so that I have zero access to social media. I’ll even turn off my phone so that I don’t get iMessages, my Slack isn’t going off 24/7 and my WhatsApp group chats are faded into the background. I used this near total sensory deprivation technique, along with finding places in the library that are open but lack distractions and finished a 20,000 word draft of one of my pre-dissertation papers in six days. Reading rooms are great for this: they are public spaces where you won’t be tempted to do random distracting stuff.

  5. Just get started. Don’t worry about it not making sense or not being good enough. Start writing. Start reading. Start doing. Get the mental ball rolling. At some point what you write will make sense and then you’ll have opened the doorway to success.

In short, procrastination is a psychological battle. Arm yourself with strategies for getting beyond it. Your future self will thank you.

Principle 17 Summary

  • Procrastination is about fear and is primarily psychological.
  • Be positive, plan but don’t over-plan, and at the end of the day, the most important thing to do is to just get started, no matter how rough or bad you think your output will be.

Principle 18: Be deliberate about your daily schedule

How often do you get to your computer in the morning or pick up your phone only to realize that you’ve already been derailed from what you planned to do that day? How often are these derailments actually productive?

Being deliberate about your day goes beyond saying no (which we covered in other principles). That’s the defensive part of scheduling deliberately. Being smart about your day also requires you to have a good plan for using the time available to you. This is the offensive part of scheduling deliberately. Do this by discovering your best time of day to do work and by aligning activities to your body’s natural rhythms.

For most people, the best time of day to do effortful thinking is in the morning. Yet, this is the time that we often waste putting out fake fires and attending to the needs of others. It is important to figure out your “peak” hours and protect them at all costs. Take a sleep quiz (you can find a few online) to figure out when your best time of day to work. Schedule your hardest and most thinking-intensive tasks for those hours. Then, schedule your meetings, conference calls, and discussion around that time (before and after). Along with being efficient with your workouts, you also should figure out when the best time of day is for working out. Sometimes your other scheduled tasks may dictate your workout time, but it is often better to work out inefficiently than to not work out at all. For many, the best time to work out is in the late afternoon, after 4pm and before dinner.

For example, unless I absolutely have to, I typically protect my mornings from 9AM to 11AM for heavy lifting work–writing and data analysis. I try to answer important emails before this walled off time. If at all possible I schedule my conference calls and meetings after 2pm when I don’t have to think as hard and am either a minor or passive participant. Gym time is also important and thus gets a reserved time slot, usually sometime between 5-7pm. If I do need to do work in the evening, I try to do it after my gym time and dinner, to give my brain some time to recharge before tackling another batch of writing. Around 10PM I start my wind down routine, stashing my phone in another room so that I can get between six and seven hours of sleep.

Fit all of these pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together and you can optimize your day for maximum productivity.

Principle 18 Summary

  • Schedule deliberately to take control of your precious time
  • Figure out your body’s natural rhythm to figure out the best time to do everything

Principle 19: Surround yourself with other productive people

Jim Rohn, a mentor to Tony Robbins coined the phrase “you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” While most of us can’t be as ruthless as what Jim recommends (we can’t simply cut off our spouse, bosses, and co-workers), we can employ his advice in principle. What this means in practice is associating with people who we can learn from, who are willing to give us constructive criticism, and who are going to give us the positive energy to succeed when we need it.

The place where we probably have the most associationistic control is at work. If you find yourself at work routinely surrounded by people who would rather socialize than do required work or who would rather complain endlessly than find solutions to problems, you should probably find another group of people to hang out with. Consider asking for a transfer to another unit or simply restrict the amount of time you spend with these non-productive people.

Finding people that we can learn from and that we get along with is extremely helpful to our productivity in the long run. Certainly the Red Queen principle (an evolutionary hypothesis which, according to Wikipedia: “proposes that organisms must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate not merely to gain reproductive advantage, but also simply to survive while pitted against ever-evolving opposing organisms in an ever-changing environment”) applies here–many of the industries where we work are extremely competitive and we have to run just to keep our current position. If we aren’t improving, our knowledge and our skills, then we’re ultimately falling behind.

Even more important for our long term growth and development is having friends who are willing to give us honest feedback when appropriate. Honest, truthful feedback is hard to deliver but oftentimes, it is exactly what’s needed to help us confront reality and recognize that we’ve gone astray or are off the mark. We need people in our lives who have the courage and strong pre-existing relationship to set us back on course.

Sometimes we just need people in our lives who can inspire us and recognize that a situation isn’t as bad as we think it is, or that we’re making a mountain out of a molehill. These positive cheerleaders can help us see when we’re ready to succeed but don’t yet have the courage to. Leverage their positive energy and encouragement into real action.

Principle 19 Summary

  • Be deliberate about the people you surround yourself with
  • Find people who you can learn from, who are willing to give you constructive criticism and people who will encourage you and inspire you

Section 5: The "Big" One

Principle 20: Never give up! Work smarter AND harder.

Do you know how long it took me to figure out all of these things? Years. None of these lessons came easy. One thing I hope is that my own experimentation and thinking helps you shorten the time it takes to achieve higher levels of productivity.

Which brings me to my last two and most important points. First, you are going to struggle. Everyone does. You’ll find yourself without the necessary discipline to continue, at times. But don’t give up. You’ll get there. You’ll find that slowly, you’re able to get more and more done. You’ll become attuned to the conditions that will set you up for success. And finally, you’ll break through and achieve optimal performance.

Second, as I wrote at the beginning of this e-book, just diving in and brute-forcing your way to success isn’t going to get you very far. In my opinion, the phrase should be “work smarter AND harder”. Exhortations to work smarter without also pushing people to work harder is providing advice that sells them short of maximum potential. If you implement the aforementioned principles in your daily life, why shouldn’t you also apply them to your whole life? Remember, if you don’t know where you’re going, any way will get you there. Being strategic about your life goals and what you need to do to get there means applying the fourteen principles in a macro way. Imagine the person you want to be 20 years from now. Do you want to be a millionaire? Do you want to own your own successful business? Do you want to launch a new brand, be a famous novelist, or release a music album? You can’t achieve those goals if you aren’t deliberate and strategic about achieving them.

So how can you apply these principles at a macro level?

  • Pick your goal. Backwards plan from that goal and be single-minded in achieving it. Keep the big picture in mind when you’re making your plan. 
  • Be ruthlessly honest about the steps you need to achieve to get there. Do you want to lose 20 lbs? Know that you’ll either have to cut thousands of calories from your diet on a weekly basis to get there or do thousands of calories’ worth of exercise. There’s simply no other way. 
  • Consider the opportunity costs. On average we’ll live to about 70-80 years old, barring some revolutionary breakthrough in medicine. So you only have so much time to accomplish your goal. All the other time you spend on irrelevant tasks is time you won’t be spending to get where you really want to go.

I’ll leave you with this final story. When I was three and a half years old, I immigrated to the United States. I spoke zero English. When I started pre-Kindergarten the following year, I didn’t speak very much with my classmates because I couldn’t. My teachers told my parents that I didn’t make enough progress that year and would have to be sent to English as a Second Language classes (ESL). I didn’t know at the time, but that meant I would be separated from the “regular kids” and have to ride a “short bus” across town to attend ESL. My parents thought I was on a path to failure (I wasn’t acclimating to the school environment) and I started to slowly realize that I was “different” and potentially less-able than my classmates. At a young age, it could have been easy for me to give up and settle for mediocrity. Instead, I took it as a challenge (what right do you have to send me to the remedial class!). With the help of an amazing ESL teacher and coaching from my parents, I was able to rejoin my classmates in 1st grade after a year of remedial schooling and made it all the way to the Ivy League. Like being drafted in the sixth round or being rejected by many publishers, we should always remember that we have a choice in the direction of our lives and how we use our time. Take those tough moments and turn them into motivation. You’ll find yourself even more productive, not less, as a result.

Principle 20 Summary

  • Never give up!
  • Life goes on and so will you. Make the most of it!


[Bonus] Read our Epilogue: Eat the Cookie