Social science is intriguing right now, because we’re living in uncharted territory; hyper-connectivity, unprecedented access to information, and an overwhelming pace of life, professional and personal, from instantaneous communications. In fact, it’s estimated that the average person is exposed to over 100,000 words of information everyday – from social media, news flashes, emails, whatsapp/text conservations, work etc.
The problem is that cognitively, human beings are hardwired for distractibility: to be attracted to novel elements in our surrounding environment. Fast-forward to today, and it is a disaster as far as productivity goes – leading to greater stress and scatter-brained days.
So, what can you do? The following list is by no means definitive, and certainly not original. It’s a list of productivity hacks that I’ve accumulated over the years from various different people and sources, and I wanted to share them with you so you can pick and choose any that could help you.
At the end of the day when I talk about productivity, what I mean is getting things done quicker so you can create more time for the things that you enjoy in your life.
I hope its useful.
The Pomodoro Technique, which derives its names from a tomato-shaped timer used by the originator, is a time management method devised by the Italian economist Francesco Cirillo in the late ’80’s. It involves working for 25-minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. After 4 cycles of 25/5 (100-mins work, 20-mins breaks), you break for 20-minutes.
The brilliance of it is twofold. First, you have a defined timeframe, so it’s easier to shut off distractions and set up your focus. Secondly, and more importantly, it allows you to talk yourself into doing the most important thing: starting. It defeats procrastination.
I remember hearing that the prolific author Stephen King starts everyday by writing 2,ooo words. Whether its pure garbage and goes in the bin, or whether its gold, the rule is the same: write 2,000 words. Somedays, he just does the 2,000 and walks away. Then there’s the days when he hits a flow state, and 2,000 becomes 10,000. But it’s the commitment to doing the smallest amount every morning that adds up to huge productivity, and has made him one of the most productive writers in history.
The Pomdoro Technique has the same effect. Rather than allow a project or task build up into a monster in your head, thus precipitating procrastination, you simply commit to one Pomodoro session: 25-minutes. By telling yourself you’ll just do 25-minutes, you’re more likely to sit down and do it, because its defined, minor and has a finish point. I find this method really adds to to increased productivity. Some days, you might do one 25-minute session, and that’s all you’ve got. Fine. Others, you’ll sink into that elusive state of flow, disregard the timer, and smoke through whatever your task is or get a sizeable chunk of work done.
To help, I like using the app ‘focusbooster.’ I love focusbooster, because it allows you to track time for specific tasks, and gives you timesheet reports, so you can know exactly how much time you spent on any given task. It also gives you a little clock to put in your screen somewhere, to keep you honest.
Try the Pomodoro Technique, and see how well you work when you’ve 25-minutes on the clock.
Batching emails is a strategy used by some of the busiest, and most productive people. Tim Ferris, Leo Baubata and other productivity hackers swear by it.
Because it allows you to get shit done, undistracted.
Simple: check and respond to emails twice a day. Pick two times, say 10am and 3pm. Obviously everyone now has emails coming straight into their smartphone, or a ‘ding’ goes on your desktop when one comes in. So this isn’t ignoring emails. You’re just processing.
Most people sit down with their coffee at their desk, and go straight into emails. You have some things that will need a response, so suddenly your mind is on them. Then you see the Facebook update that you just have to look at. Suddenly you’re in full distraction mode, and you’re checking news websites, sports websites…
Be honest. We all do it. Lets say you start work at 8am, on average. By batching emails, you’re giving yourself a clear 2 hours of undivided attention on your most important task for the day.
Research consistently shows one thing about people: human beings cannot multitask. It is the enemy of productivity.
So anything that came in the evening before, or that morning, can wait until 10am. And anything that comes in after 10 can wait until 3pm. Everything still gets done by the end of the day. At those times, 10am and 3pm, you’re giving yourself 30 minutes to process emails. Here’s a few strategies:
1: Have a folder for emails that don’t need immediate response, and put such emails into that folder. Respond to them at your leisure;
2: Have a folder for subscriptions, stuff you want to read, and put such emails in there. You can read them on the bus, or whenever you’re taking a break;
3: Delete all unnecessary mail;
4: Respond to the mail that requires immediate response.
Do that twice a day, and watch your stress levels drop. You’ll create more time in your day, for what matters, be it professional or personal.
This tip I picked up from Josh Waitzkin, who if you haven’t heard of him, has made a life from learning faster and better than anyone on the planet. Aged 11, he drew with chess world champion Gary Kasparov, on his way to being one of the youngest chess prodigies ever. The movie Searching for Bobby Fisher is based on that part of his life. He then walked away from chess and took up Tai Chi, becoming world champion in 2004.
He defines meta-learning.
Have you ever been stuck on a problem, and seemingly can’t think through or around it? Of course, we all have. Whether it’s trying to think of a presentation for work, or think around an academic issue, or brainstorm a new business plan, we all need the creative process for something.
What we often try to do is force the issue. Creativity, however, can’t be forced. It needs flow. So how do you create flow? Waitzkin’s advice is simple and practical.
At the end of your work day, early evening say, have a quick brainstorm on your problem or task. Just scribble, mental purging; feelings, thoughts, random ideas, anything. Then forget about it. This is key. Go and do something with your evening. Leave work, go to the gym, make dinner, meet people, whatever. This is deliberate. You want it to sink into your subconscious before you sleep.
This is where people go wrong; brainstorming before sleep will stimulate your thought process. You want to think about it late afternoon/early evening, and then let it fade away. Then sleep on it.
When you wake up, the first thing you do is have another brainstorm for 30 minutes. If you need to get up a bit earlier to squeeze it in before work, then do. But do not do anything else first. Don’t brush your teeth, make coffee, anything. Under no circumstances do you check email. As Waitzkin points out, psychologically this puts you into reactive mode, rather than proactive.
You’ve slept on your problem, allowed your subconsious to mold it and play with it. Don’t break that momentum. Coming back to it first thing, you’ll be surprised how you’ve new thoughts, new angles, and new solutions. I love this, because it works. Flow is elusive. This is teeing yourself up to find it.
The method is simple: early evening brainstorm, forget about it and do something else, sleep on it, and then attack it first thing the following morning. Try it. Think different.
Taking a leaf from my main man, Bruce Lee: “It is not the daily increase, but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”
How do you hack away at the unessential? This is one of the biggest things I’ve taken from the work of Tim Ferriss; apply the Pareto Principle to your life.
Developed by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who developed the theory that 80% of any effect comes from 20% of the cause. Put differently, 80% of your return comes from 20% of your efforts. This is seen everywhere from business, where 80% of most companies revenue comes from 20% of their customers.
Meaning most of us have a lot of noise we can drown out.
Do an 80/20 analysis to hack away unessential elements of all facets of your life. Here’s a few examples:
1: 80% of your results training will come from 20% of your exercises. Pick exercises that give you most return (big-compoound, multi-joint movements like squats), and the rest is really just fluff.
2: 80% of your stumbling blocks with diet will come from 20% of your food choices. You know you have “those foods” that if they’re in the house, will sabotage your efforts. If you’re actively trying to lose weight, keep them away from hands reach.
3: If you’re self-employed, 80% of your income will come from 20% of your clientele. Identify them, and give them your undivided attention.
4: If you’re not, 80% of your productivity will come from 20% of your overall role. Delegate the other 80% and focus on the highest leverage tasks.
5: 80% of your distractions come from 20% of your media. Eliminate, and be ruthless.
Do a monthly 80/20 audit on your life, and see where you can hack away at the unessential.
Flow is something I am obsessed with, and because I write so much, I can tell you that it is wonderful to find.
We owe the definitions to a Hungarian psychologist, named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He defined flow as:
“a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Csikszentmihalyi identified certain criteria that define the flow state, and knowing these, you can set yourself up for it. The following are the criteria together with some practical tips:
1: Complete focus: Get involved with what you want to do – that essay for college, or that presentation for work. Block off time dedicated to it, and block out distractions. Don’t check email, and leave your phone. Set your alarm earlier to get up when the world is quiet (or block out time in the evening if you’re a night-owl). Create your space, and be vigilant with it.
2: Clarity of Purpose: Plan. Be definitive about what it is you need to do or achieve. Map it out, either sketch the essay or set out your headers or topics for the presentation. This gives you targets, and you apply your focus to them each in turn.
3: Challenge to Skill: This is a key component of flow – the task needs to be a challenge to you, to your intellect, but you also have the necessary skill to achieve it. If it seems insurmountable, you won’t achieve flow. Basically you need to know its gonna be tough, but be confident that you can do it.
4: Complete Immersion: You don’t check the clock. You don’t check your phone. You’re not worried about stopping for lunch. You’re in the zone, and nothing is going to mess with that. This is the phase that defines flow. And you will only reach it where the 3 prior conditions have been met. The most important of them, in my opinion, are complete focus and clarity of purpose: both of these are within your control.
5: Intrinsic Motivation: You’re motivated by doing the best you can, for you. You want the essay to be excellent. You want the presentation to rock. There is no external reward, and if there is, you couldn’t give a shit about it. You’re trying to excel, for you.
The next time you have something challenging that you need to do, understand these components, and create an environment that allows you to find them.
This is an awesome hack you can put to use straight away. I picked it up doing Jim Kwik’s Superhero You courses, and it relates to an aspect of learning and knowledge that is all-too-quickly going out of fashion in our era of infographics, shiny things and ADHD-esque information consumption: reading.
Which is a shame, because if you want to be good at anything, you need to read. College, work, exams, theses, whatever; love it or hate it, it’s necessary. The average adult reads at a speed of 250-300 words per minute (wpm). The problem is that the brain processes information so much faster than that, so if you notice you get distracted easily when you’re reading, it’s because you’ve bored your brain to death.
Do you want to know what the biggest enemy of reading faster is? Subvocalisation. This is where you read each word in your head as if you were reading out loud.
And the easiest way to get over this, and boost your reading speed by DOUBLE, is to use a visual pacer.
Memory mastermind Jim Kwik goes even further in his advice, recommending specifically the use of the index finger of your left hand. Why? Because one side of your body is controlled by the opposite side of your brain, and your right-brain is associated with imagination and creativity, meaning you capture more of what you read as thought.
You could use a pen for on-screen reading, but the principle is always the same; use a pacer to underline the line you’re reading, and follow it with your eyes.
This can immediately take you from 300 to 500wpm, and it works. Double the amount you read, to get through more in less time. Learn again. Learn better. (sorry, Beckett).
We all know sleep is kinda a big deal, but I feel we often need an extra sell to take it seriously. How about clearing waste from your brain?
One of the features of the brain is that it doesn’t have a waste clearance system like the rest of the body. Recent research has shown us how we eliminate the waste that generates from the most metabolically active organ in our body (20-30% of our daily energy needs go to the brain). When we sleep, cerebrospinal fluid bathes the brain, taking up any waste products and allowing them to be eliminated through blood vessels.
This process is absolutely critical for brain health, so if you’ve been skimping on your zzz’s, get back to your square 8.
There are a lot of variables that go into a good night’s sleep. One that I’ve found to work really well is based on the average duration of a sleep cycle: 90mins. 90mins is the average time to go from stage-1 non-REM sleep, where you’re in a state of relaxed consciousness, through to REM deep sleep and back to stage-1.
The problem is that many people set an alarm for an arbitrary time, say 7.30am, without any idea that they could be waking themselves up in the middle of deep-wave stage 3 or 4 sleep, or even REM. Ever found yourself in the middle of a lucid dream only to have the alarm interrupt it while you roar like a dinosaur, bleary eyed, for the snooze button?
Sleeping in 90-minute cycles is a really effective way to wake up refreshed, because you’ve come out of your deep sleep phases, and already in a state of conscious awareness.
It’s as simple as figuring out when you’re likely to be asleep, and figuring out the best time to get up based on that. Let’s say you’re usually in bed by 10.30pm, and asleep by 11pm. In this situation, you would set your alarm for either 6.30am or 8am. You can see why, in this example, waking up at 7.30am would be right in the middle of your deepest sleep.
Wake up refreshed.
That is just a few productivity hacks that I hope you find useful. There are many more, which I’ll share in upcoming posts. The reason I’m not throwing them all in one behemoth of a post is simple; the paradox of choice. It is part of the dilemma of our information, that too much choice leads to scattered thinking, lack of action, procrastination and stress. So I’ve put 6 in here that are all implementable without overwhelm.
I’d love to hear if you have any productivity hacks you find useful, so please share away on the FB page.
Until the next segment of productivity hacks, stay productive! Buy time for the things that matter to you.