Productivity: Working towards a summary of what we know

by adamzerner39 min read9th Nov 201720 comments

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Epistemic effort

  • Spent 20-30 hours researching what we know about productivity. About an hour a day for two weeks, plus a few more days where I dedicated more than an hour to studying productivity.
  • Skimmed through the entire archives of Cal Newport's blog (the author of Deep Work, which I had read about a year or two ago), and read the posts that seem most useful.
  • Searched through lesswrong.com and lesserwrong.com and read relevant and useful posts, including How to Beat Procrastination.
  • Searched Google and Google Scholar for academic research on productivity (I couldn't really find anything).
  • Read a few Harvard Business Review articles on productivity, starting with For Real Productivity, Less is Truly More.
  • Read a few summaries of Getting Things Done, by David Allen. Watched his Ted Talk.
  • Read through about 5-7 pages of the highest voted questions on the Personal Productivity Stack Exchange and went down some link rabbit holes.
  • Spent about two hours thinking about how to categorize productivity advice.
  • I have a degree in neuroscience, know a decent amount about cognitive sciences more generally, and have read various related books such as Peak by Anders Ericsson, which reviews what we know about expert performance.
  • Spent about 20 hours writing and editing this post.

Meta

I've come across a lot of productivity-related advice over the years. Tips, tricks, blog posts, books, etc. I feel like I know a decent amount about productivity, and that I should be pretty damn productive. Unfortunately, the knowledge I've accumulated doesn't seem to have translated into actual success. Actual productivity.

So then, a few weeks ago I decided that enough is enough. That I need to take a step back and really spend some time "getting better at productivity". In order to "get better at productivity", I figured that I should start off doing some research. Why try to figure things out myself when I could just start off standing on the shoulders of others? This post outlines and summarizes what I have found in my research.

I initially wasn't planning on writing this post. I don't study productivity professionally. I'm not the most qualified person to be doing this. I've only spent 20-30 hours researching this, so there must be a lot of things I'm missing. Still, I think that there are some strong reasons for writing this post:

  1. I couldn't find a similar post that already exists. Maybe that's just because I'm a bad googler. Maybe it's because they're actually hard to find. Maybe it's because they don't exist in the first place. I'm not sure which of these are true, but I suspect that the last two are true to a notable degree. If not, I apologize for adding to the pile of shitty articles on the internet.
  2. My writing style may make things "click" for certain readers. Scott Alexander just wrote a cool article about this idea: Non-Expert Explanation.
  3. Hopefully commenters will add new information. I am attempting to summarize what is known (and thought) about productivity, but since I'm not an expert in this field, I expect that my attempt at summarizing will be incomplete and imperfect. I intend for this post to be a starting point. I hope that readers will share their knowledge, and perhaps we as a community can create a pretty awesome outline and summary of what humanity knows about productivity. (I'm not sure what the best way is for us as a community can coordinate these efforts. I'm happy to continuously update this post based on information provided by commenters. I'd be happy to see someone use this post as a starting point, do more research into productivity, and then write their own similar post. I guess we can talk about this point in the comments.)

Other preliminary notes

  • This post heavily borrows from various sources. Cal Newport's blog, Deep Work, Peak, Rest, Getting Things Done, and How to Beat Procrastination are probably the core ones As Raemon notes, part of what makes these resources useful is that they "provide lots of context and anecdotes and inspiring speeches that cause you to take the ideas seriously". And so reading them may be helpful even if you already understand the big ideas they discuss.
  • As Raemon also notes, regarding beating procrastination and actually following through, this post mainly recommends "outwitting" your basic instincts. However, there is an alternative approach where you try to "correct" those basic instincts, which seems to require more upfront effort, but more effective in the long run. I nor he is aware of too much evidence supporting this approach. My personal impression is pretty skeptical of the "correcting" approach, but I don't know much about it and am interested in hearing from those who do.

High level outline

  1. Uncrowd your mind
  2. Develop your "focus muscles"
  3. Prevent procrastination
  4. "Pregame" before deep work
  5. Think hard
  6. Rest
  7. Think easy
  8. Follow through

Lower level outline

Note: I attempted to categorize things, but I don't think the categorizations are perfect. However, I think it is useful to have categories, even if they aren't perfect. I am interested in hearing how others would categorize things.


Uncrowd your mind:

  1. Capture your tasks
  2. Get small tasks out of the way
  3. Break tasks into small actions
  4. Underschedule
  5. Deal with psychological issues

Develop your "focus muscles":

  1. Embrace boredom
  2. Deliberately train

Prevent procrastination:

  1. Remove temptations
  2. Use schedules/planning
  3. Use social pressure and precommitment
  4. Record yourself
  5. Expect work to be effective
  6. Actually care about the task you're doing

"Pregame" before deep work:

  1. Use routines/rituals
  2. Utilize location

Think hard:

  1. Think hard
  2. Utilize active recall
  3. Utilize spaced repetition
  4. Use a coach
  5. Focus on the wildly important

Rest:

  1. Take time to decompress
  2. Get enough sleep
  3. Take naps
  4. Take breaks when appropriate
  5. Experience solitude
  6. Exercise

Think easy:

  1. Perform "productive meditation"

Follow through:

  1. Reflect
  2. Use a productivity cheat sheet
  3. Reward yourself
  4. Punish yourself

Uncrowd your mind

Capture your tasks

I have to freeze my Transunion credit report. Fortunately, I have this written down on my todo list. If I didn't, there would be a compartment in my head whispering to me:

Remember to freeze your credit report... remember to freeze your credit report... remember to freeze your credit report. Wait, which credit report do you need to freeze? Equifax? Transunion? Yes, Transunion. Remember to freeze your Transunion credit report... Remember to freeze your Transunion credit report...

More generally, when I don't write things down, I find that a different compartment starts whispering to me:

Adam, I have this feeling that there are things you need to do, but I can't recall what exactly they are. This isn't good. If we don't figure out what they are, they won't get done.

When you write out your todo list, both of these compartments get flushed out of your brain. There's no need to worry about remembering to freeze your Transunion credit report. It's right there on your todo list. And there's no need to worry that there is something you're forgetting. You'll have the confidence that if there was anything you needed to do, it would be on your todo list.

The Getting Things Done productivity system calls this "task capture".


Epistemic status: I am not aware of any academic research on it, but it makes sense, has worked for me, seems to work for a lot of people, is the focal point of the most popular productivity system (Getting Things Done), and is a part of many other productivity systems. So I'd consider task capture to be "very plausible".

Get small tasks out of the way

Yes, task capture can help you clear your mind, but it isn't perfect. Even if you have everything written down, many people still have lingering feelings of "remember to freeze your Transunion credit report" and "I feel like there are things I need to do, but I can't remember what they are". So then, if you can get small tasks out of the way, it's probably a good idea.

Getting Things Done recommends that if a task takes two minutes or less to complete, you should just do it right away. This especially makes sense to me when the alternative is spending 90 seconds writing it down and figuring out which todo list it belongs to. Of course, two minutes is a pretty arbitrary amount of time. If you really hate "having things on your plate", perhaps five or ten minutes would work better for you.

Sometimes it may make sense to take an "administritive day" where you just get all of your small tasks done at once. That way, small tasks won't interrupt your flow on other days where you're trying to work deeply on a hard task.


Epistemic status: I am not aware of any academic research on it, but it makes sense, has worked for me, seems to work for a lot of people, and seems to be recommended a lot. So I'd consider it to be "very plausible".

Break tasks into small actions

Which todo list are you more likely to procrastinate on?

  1. ☐ 15 page sociology paper

or

  1. ☐ 15 page sociology paper
    1. ☐ Research
    2. ☐ Outline
    3. ☐ First draft
    4. ☐ Second draft
    5. ☐ Feedback
    6. ☐ Final version

If you are a human like me, it's the first one.

  • "15 page sociology paper" isn't an action you can take. It's not really clear what exactly the first step is. It feels extremely overwhelming.
  • When you think of it as "many small tasks", every time you complete a task it feels rewarding and encouraging, and you end up starting a success spiral. When you finish the first draft, it really does feel like you've accomplished something. On the other hand, when you think of it as "one big task", you don't feel that same sense of reward and accomplishment as you are making progress on it.

Epistemic status: There seems to be acaemdic research supporting this. Luke Muehlhauser mentioned this point in his awesome article How to Beat Procrastination and cited A mega-trial investigation of goal setting, interest enhancement, and energy on procrastination. In addition to the academic research, it makes sense to me and the anecdotal evidence I'm aware of also seems to strongly point toward it being true. With all of that said, I'd go with "pretty strong" on this one.

Underschedule

Consider the following schedule:

  • 9:00-9:30: Shower, brush teeth, get dressed
  • 9:30-10:00: Breakfast
  • 10:00-12:00: Class
  • 12:00-12:30: Lunch
  • 12:30-3:00: Study
  • 3:00-5:00: Class
  • 5:00-6:00: Work out, shower
  • 6:00-10:00: Dinner date

It seems pretty standard and reasonable at first glance. But that's because you suck and you're committing the planning fallacy again.

  • Breakfast might only take thirty minutes, but only if everything goes perfectly. If everything doesn't go perfectly, you'll end up feeling stressed and rushed to get to class on time.
  • Your work out and shower might take exactly an hour, but what if the showers are all occupied? Are you going to show up to your date smelly?

The point is that this schedule might work out perfectly, but it usually won't. Which means you'll usually be stressed from being behind schedule.

Why not underschedule and give yourself more leeway? Yes, it might mean that you won't squeeze as much in to the day as possible, but it also means that you get to enjoy peace of mind. This peace of mind will help you to focus hard and work deeply.


Epistemic status: I have a pretty strong intuitive sense that this all is true. There isn't one specific post (that I recall), but Cal Newport's blog talks about this topic.

Deal with psychological issues

If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or some other psychological issue, it certainly will hurt your productivity. There is plenty of academic research that shows this. And it's just common sense.

I don't see this point mentioned much in the world of productivity. Maybe this is because it's presumed to be obvious.

Or maybe it's because "abnormal" people are considered beyond the scope of productivity systems, and instead part of the scope of medicine. But I don't really think this makes sense.

  1. Tons of people suffer from psychological issues, so they aren't really "abnormal".
  2. Most issues fall along a spectrum, and so even if you aren't technically "depressed", any sort of depressive feelings you may have will harm your productivity.

Anyway, I'd just like to emphasize that if you suffer from any psychological issues, those issues are probably hurting your productivity.


Epistemic status: Strong.

Develop your "focus muscles"

Embrace boredom

Imagine that you are waiting on line for a coffee. There are two people in front of you. If you're like most people, you'll probably take out your phone to occupy you while you're waiting.

Imagine that you are driving and you pull up to a red light that seems to have about 30 seconds on it before it turns green. If you're like most people, you'll probably take out your phone to occupy you while you're waiting.

Imagine that you are at the movies and are waiting for the cashier to be ready so that you can pay for your popcorn. If you're like most people, you'll probably take out your phone to occupy you while you're waiting.

Imagine that you are taking a shi... ok, I'll stop.

The point is that we are always seeking stimulation and that we have lost our tolerance for a little boredom. This trains our minds to be very "jumpy", and this "jumpiness" can really harm our ability to think deeply.

Exceptional things — be it ideas, writing, mathematics, or art — require hard work. This, in turn, requires boring stretches during which you ignore a mind pleading with you to seek novel stimuli — “Maybe there’s an e-mail waiting that holds some exciting news! Go check!”
Source: Have We Lost Our Tolerance For a Little Boredom?

Epistemic status: Cal Newport dedicates an entire chapter to this idea in his book Deep Work. He cites the research of Clifford Nass, which found that "constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brian". Both of these things make me feel pretty confident that the idea is true, along with the fact that it is aligned with what common sense and anecdotal evidence point to.

Deliberately train

We have "focus muscles", and by training, you can strengthen them. One way of training is by attempting to memorize a deck of cards. Another way is by playing chess. Another way is by meditating. All of these things will improve your ability to control your attention, and this will improve your productivity.

This one also comes from Cal Newport's book Deep Work. In it he gives an example of a student who has ADHD, spent time memorizing decks of cards, learned to control his attention, and improved so much academically that he got accepted into a prestigious Ph.D program.


Epistemic status: There does seem to be good evidence that you can train your "attentional control" ability by doing things like memorizing a deck of cards. And it does seem pretty clear that better "attentional control" helps with productivity. So then, I feel pretty confident that it is a good idea.

Prevent procrastination

Remove temptations

Removing temptations is a lot easier than resisting them. Here are some concrete tips:

  • Blocking internet use:
    • SelfControl is great for those with Macs. The authors of SelfControl recommend SelfRestraint and Cold Turkey for Windows users. There is a version of SelfControl for Linux users, but it is out of date and should only be used if you know what you're doing.
    • Update 11/11/17 thanks to Raemon: Freedom is a paid alternative to SelfControl. The notable benefits over SelfControl are: 1) can block apps, not just websites, 2) schedules, 3) synced across devices.
    • Instead of using an app, you could block websites by using etc/hosts. The downside to this is that you can also unblock them, whereas with an app like SelfControl, you can't unblock them until the timer expires.
    • You can try removing the network card on your computer, if possible. Or unplugging your router. (Paul Graham tried disconnecting his main computer from the internet, and had a side computer across the room he'd use when he needed to use the internet. This strategy didn't actually work for him though.)
  • Blocking distracting things on the internet:
    • AdBlock is usually just used to block ads, but it can also be used to block other things as well. For example, I used it to hide the sidebar on StackExchange so I'm not tempted to click interesting links.
    • Not Now Youtube is a Chrome extension that blocks recommended videos from showing up on YouTube.
    • Hide YouTube Comments is a Chrome extension that hides YouTube comments.
    • On Chrome, by default, the new tab page will tempt you with links to previously visited sites. Follow these instructions to make that page blank.
    • Prevent autocomplete in the URL bar. This is how you do so on Chrome.
  • Do your work somewhere that doesn't have any distractions. For example, go to the library instead of studying in your dorm's lounge.
  • Don't bring your cell phone with you when you go out to do work. If you really need to have it with you, at least put it in your bag or something rather than keeping it in your pocket.
  • I've always thought it'd be an interesting idea to have a safe with a timer on it. You would, for example, put your cell phone in it, set the timer for 4 hours, work for 4 hours without having to deal with the temptation of your phone, and then the safe would unlock after 4 hours have passed.

Epistemic status: Very high. This is common sense, right?

Use schedules/planning

There is a perhaps subtle, but important difference between schedules and plans. At least as I'm operationally defining the terms here. A schedule is like an appointment where you will jump through hoops to make sure that you are "on time". It is rigid.

Planning is different. It isn't rigid. You may plan to eat breakfast from 9:00-9:30 and then work from 9:30-12:00, but if you get a phone call and breakfast takes longer than 30 minutes, you can adjust your plan on the fly.

I agree with Cal Newport's perspective that planning is usually a better approach. For most people, when you try to follow a rigid schedule, you end up failing, and then giving up on the schedule entirely. Then you feel bad about yourself and proceed to "wing it".

With planning, if your breakfast takes 60 minutes instead of 30, you can just adjust your schedule accordingly for the rest of the day. No feeling bad about yourself. No winging it.

Newport uses daily planning and weekly planning, and he swears by it. However, he also sprinkles in a little bit of hard scheduling. Long, uninterrupted chunks of time for deep work can be hard to find, so he recommends scheduling them four weeks in advance. That way, you can ensure that you do in fact give yourself those large chunks of time that are necessary for deep work.


Epistemic status: Regardless of whether it is scheduling or planning, something along those lines certainly seems better than "winging it". Anecdotal evidence and common sense seem point to this being true. However, I'm not sure, and I'm not aware of any actual academic research on the topic.

As to the question of scheduling vs. planning, I base my viewpoint largely on my own intuition. I have a sense that anecdotally, people who try hard schedules fall into the trap I described. But I don't know many people who have tried flexible planning, and so I guess I haven't actually observed that it works for most people. However, it has worked decently well for me over the past week, and I do have an intuitive impression that it will be effective for many. Ultimately though, my confidence is not too, too high.

Use social pressure and precommitment

Here are some examples of social pressure:

  • Work alongside a friend in such a way that if you go on Facebook, your friend will see your screen and judge you for procrastinating. This could also work if you are working in a public place like the library and would be embarrassed if someone walked by and saw you on Facebook. Another approach would be to literally share your screen with a group of friends, so that if you procrastinate, they'll see it. Complice, which LessWrongers use as a virtual study hall, offers this feature.
  • Tell all of your friends that you'll have your paper done by Friday afternoon.
  • Check in with your friends at the end of the day and share what work you have gotten done. You can do this at the end of every week as well.

The classic example of precommitment is an army general torching his own ships so that his men couldn't consider retreating home. A more modern example would be not buying a TV for your home if you want to stop watching TV.

In the context of productivity, an example of precommitment is writing an attention charter where you state ahead of time that you'll only allow yourself to be interrupted under certain circumstances, like if you receive an offer to collaborate on a project that fits your interests. If "text message from friend" isn't on your attention charter, you aren't allowed to interrupt yourself by reading and responding to it.

Another example would be to schedule internet usage in advance. That way, you don't find yourself mindlessly browsing the internet.


Epistemic status: There seems to be a good deal of academic research supporting the idea that precommitment is effective. In How to Beat Procrastination, Luke Muehlhauser cites Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. If you google around, you'll come across some more literature. I haven't taken a close look at the literature, but I get the impression that it's legit. My personal impression and the anecdotal evidence I've come across mostly points to this being true as well.

As for social pressure, I'm not aware of any academic research. My impression is that it works for most people, although I wouldn't be surprised to find that there are some people who just don't really care what other think and thus aren't effected by it. And I'm sure that it depends on who is providing the pressure. I expect that pressure from your little brother would be much less effective than pressure from a peer with high social status who you'd like to impress.

Record yourself

In the context of computer usage, you can use Rescue Time. It will record how much time you spend on different websites, and using different applications (Chrome, Skype, Slack, etc.).

When you're being recorded, you may find yourself having second thoughts about typing in "facebook.com" to your browser's URL bar and pressing enter. "Ugh, I don't want to see that I've spend 30 hours on Facebook this week."

Rescue Time records things for you, but as an alternative, you can record things yourself. Like how many hours you spent on deep work this week. Or how many hours of TV you watched. Or how many times you meditated. Check out How to Measure Anything if you need help coming up with good metrics.

Related: the Don't Break the Chain technique. With this technique, you basically have a streak of consecutive days doing what you set out to do. I had a friend in college who had a years long streak of running a mile every day, and when he woke up with the sniffles he certainly wasn't going to let a runny nose get in the way of his streak. He got up and went for a run.


Epistemic status: I am not aware of any academic research on this. My impression is that this is something that works for most people, but not necessarily everyone.

Expect work to be effective

Consider the following situation. You have an organic chemistry exam in two days. You're incredibly confused by the material. You're so far behind. You don't understand anything. Even if you studied, you probably wouldn't pass the test.

With these beliefs, wouldn't it be incredibly easy close your books and turn on Netflix?

If you don't expect that your work will actually help you, then it's pretty easy to procrastinate.

Muehlhauser mentions three techniques to counteract low expectation:

  1. Success spirals. A series of "small wins" can give you the confidence you need to expect success.
  2. Vicarious victory. Watching inspirational videos and getting inspired by others' success may change your attitude.
  3. Mental contrasting. Vividly imagine what you want to achieve (eg. an A on your test), and then contrast that with what you don't want to achieve (eg. an F on your test).

Epistemic status: There seems to be a lot of academic research supporting this. Muehlhauser's article and The Procrastination Equation both include a lot of references.

Increase the value of your task

If your task is boring, it will be hard to avoid procrastinating. If your task is something that you don't care about, it will be hard to avoid procrastinating. Common sense.

But how can you take something boring and make it fun? How can you make yourself care about something that you currently don't care about?

Muehlhauser's article mentions a few ways:

  1. Flow. If your task is too difficult, make it easier. If it is too easy, make it more challenging. Find that sweet spot.
  2. Meaning. It'd be nice if you just intrinsically cared about getting good grades. I certainly didn't. But even if you don't, consider that good grades can get you into a good college, which can get you a good job, which can make you a lot of money! Does that make studying a bit more meaningful?
  3. Energy. When you're thirsty, hungry or tired, it's hard to find your tasks to be valuable. You just want water/food/sleep! So make sure you take care of yourself so that you have the energy you need to get to work.
  4. Rewards. You could always just give yourself a piece of chocolate if you complete your task.
  5. Passion. It certainly helps to choose tasks that you're passionate about.

Epistemic status: There seems to be a lot of academic research supporting this. Muehlhauser's article and The Procrastination Equation both include a lot of references.

"Pregame" before deep work

Use routines/rituals

This is the depth ritual that I have been using before I get started with a period of work:

  • Turn on SelfControl (which blocks distracting websites).
  • If my phone is with me, turn it off and put it in my bag (rather than keeping it in my pocket).
  • Make sure I have logged off the Messages app.
  • Do I have what I need? Water? Food? Rest? Bathroom?
  • Should I move to a better location?
  • Why is this task important? (Write out an answer.)
  • How am I going to accomplish this task? (Write out an answer)

Epistemic status: I am not aware of any academic research on this, and I get the sense that there isn't any. My impression is that this is something that works for many people, but not everyone.

Utilize location

Location can be powerful. Here are some tips:


Epistemic status: I'm not really aware of any academic research on this stuff other than for spending time in nature. I wouldn't be too surprised if there was research. My impression is that these tips really do provide some benefit for almost everyone, but that the benefit is probably small.

Think hard

Think hard

Uber successful people aren't busy. They don't work 12 hour days. They often work 4 or 5 hour days. So then, why are they the ones winning Nobel Prizes and Olympic medals instead of you?

It isn't because they are "gifted". It's because when they work, they work hard.

The books Deep Work, Peak, and Rest all give plenty of examples of this.

In my opinion, this seems like one of the most important things to do if you want to improve your productivity.


Epistemic status: Deep Work, Peak, and Rest all make pretty strong arguments for this idea, in my opinion. It seems that there are many, many examples of successful people who fit this mold. However, I am not sure whether or not there are counterexamples. I am not familiar enough with the lives of successful people.

The examples of successful people who fit this mold range from academica, to music, to athletics, to performance, to chess. The idea makes intuitive sense to me. The authors making the arugments seem like trustworthy people. Personally, I feel pretty confident in the idea that deep work, deliberate practice - whatever you want to call it, it is a major, major factor in ones success.

Utilize active recall

Active recall seems to be incredibly important if you want to be an effective learner.

What is active recall? Well, the opposite of active recall is passive review. Reading a textbook chapter is an example of passive review. Watching a lecture is an example of passive review. Reading over your textbook notes is an example of passive review. Listening to a friend explain something to you is passive review.

Active recall is when you create an outline of the material you're reading. It's when you try to explain it in your own words. When you create diagrams. When you summarize it. When you throw it out and start over. When you try to predict what will come next. When you think about how it relates to something else. When you complete exercises. When you think critically about whether or not it is true. When you use it to help you with a related project. When you use it to make an argument to a friend.


Epistemic status: Very strong. The academic research seems to be there. It makes intuitive sense. My anecdotal evidence supports it.

Utilize spaced repetition

In the above diagram, after 20 minutes, you only remember 60% of what you initially knew. After an hour, you only remember about 50%. After 9 hours it's below 40%.

This makes sense, right? After you learn something, it doesn't just stick and stay there forever. You forget it.

In the above diagram, the subject utilizes spaced repetition. You don't just study for the first four days, and then never pick it up again. You space your studying out in such a way that enables it to actually stick long term. First you review the next day, then the next week, then the next month - something like that.

Note: There is a lot of software out there to help you use spaced repetition. Anki seems to be the most popular.


Epistemic status: Very strong. There has been a lot of research done on this. Gwern has a great article covering it.

Use a coach

If you can afford one, this is probably a great idea. Anders Ericsson lists it as one of the key components of deliberate practice:

Arguably the most famous violin teacher of all time, Ivan Galamian, made the point that budding maestros do not engage in deliberate practice spontaneously: “If we analyze the development of the well-known artists, we see that in almost every case the success of their entire career was dependent on the quality of their practicing. In practically every case, the practicing was constantly supervised either by the teacher or an assistant to the teacher.”
Research on world-class performers has confirmed Galamian’s observation. It also has shown that future experts need different kinds of teachers at different stages of their development. In the beginning, most are coached by local teachers, people who can give generously of their time and praise. Later on, however, it is essential that performers seek out more-advanced teachers to keep improving their skills. Eventually, all top performers work closely with teachers who have themselves reached international levels of achievement.

However, having a coach isn't strictly necessary. Ericsson uses the example of Benjamin Franklin as someone who was particularly good at self-guidance:

Benjamin Franklin provides one of the best examples of motivated self-coaching. When he wanted to learn to write eloquently and persuasively, he began to study his favorite articles from a popular British publication, the Spectator. Days after he’d read an article he particularly enjoyed, he would try to reconstruct it from memory in his own words. Then he would compare it with the original, so he could discover and correct his faults. He also worked to improve his sense of language by translating the articles into rhyming verse and then from verse back into prose. Similarly, famous painters sometimes attempt to reproduce the paintings of other masters.

Epistemic status: It seems pretty clear that feedback and guidance are both very important. It makes sense that it can often be difficult to get these things without a coach, and thus that having a coach would be very useful.

I don't know too much about this though. Maybe it depends on the field? Maybe it depends on other things? Regardless, Anders Ericsson talks about it a lot and he seems to be the expert on expert performance, so the fact that he talks about it a lot definitely means something to me.

Focus on the wildly important

It can be easy to get caught up in mundane daily responsibilities and to lose track of the things that actually matter. Focusing on the wildly important seems to be a good heuristic.


Epistemic status: I recall hearing this advice in various forms quite often. In Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about this idea. He gets it from The Four Disciplines of Education. The idea makes sense to me. I'd say I'm pretty confident that focusing on the wildly important is good advice.

Rest

Note: I haven't actually had a chance to read the book Rest in full yet. I expect that doing so would allow me to add to and improve this section.

Take time to decompress

I often get caught up in this routine where I never quite stop working. Even after dinner, I still try to fit in another 2-3 hours of work. Even at 11pm, I figure it would be good to study for another 45 minutes or so before I go to sleep. Even at 2am when I can't sleep I figure I may as well get some work done.

No. Just, no.

With this approach, your mind never actually gets an opportunity to decompress, and that is harmful to your productivity.

Cal Newport has a cool idea to combat this called a shutdown ritual. Basically, at the end of your work day, you review your todo lists, review your calendar, do whatever else you need to do, and then say the magic phrase: "schedule shutdown, complete". Going through this shutdown ritual gives you the confidence that you are in fact done for the day and any work related tasks can wait until tomorrow morning.


Epistemic status: Cal Newport talks about the importance of decompressing a lot (and cites some research, I think?). The book Rest also covers it (and cites research, I'm sure). It makes sense to me. I feel pretty confident that it is important.

Get enough sleep

There is no shortage of research showing that sleep is related to productivity. So then, if you want to be productive, get enough sleep!

Of course, this is easier said than done. Personally, I found Pain Science's Insomnia Guide and Supermemo's sleep guide to be useful.


Epistemic status: Strong. There is a lot of research on this.

Take naps

After reading an article on napping by the American Psychological Association, it seems that some people benefit from taking naps, but that others just end up feeling groggy. So then, I suppose that napping is something that is worth experimenting with, but that if it doesn't seem to be helping you it should be avoided.

Two important notes:

  1. If you take your nap too late in the day, it'll mess with your circadian rhythm and make it harder for you to fall asleep at night.
  2. Nap duration is very related to whether or not you end up feeling groggy. We have 90 minute sleep cycles, and if you wake up in a period of deep sleep, you'll certainly feel groggy. So it probably makes sense to take a short nap and wake up before you enter deep sleep, or to take a longer nap of around 90 minutes so that you have "resurfaced" from your deep sleep phase when your alarm goes off. However, if you are sleep deprived, you make enter deep sleep very rapidly, and so even a short nap may make you feel groggy.

Supermemo claims that if napping "isn't working" for you, it is because you are making one of these two mistakes.


Epistemic status: I am not too familiar with the research on napping, so my confidence isn't too, too high, but that APA article seems pretty reliable, and it does make sense that napping works for some but not others, so I'd say that I'm reasonably confident about what I wrote in this section.

Take breaks when appropriate

A lot of you have probably heard of the pomodoro technique, where you spend 25 minutes or so working, and then 5 minutes or so taking a break. There is some cognitive science research saying that we need these breaks at intervals somewhere in this ballpark.

On the other hand, sometimes you're in the zone and need 3-4 hours to just churn through on some difficult task.

I think it is a good idea to use your judgement, and to take breaks when appropriate.

However, it is important to note that the type of break you take is important. Playing a video game or scrolling through Facebook is very different from taking a short walk. With the former, you'll have a much harder time "getting back into the zone".

Cal Newport calls the latter Deep Breaks, and has a great article that elaborates on these idea.


Epistemic status: As I mention in the section, I hear that there is cognitive science research supporting the idea that we need somewhat frequent breaks. At the same time, my anecdotal experiences point to the fact that when you're in the zone, it's best to just keep prodding along. I'm not aware of any research on this idea though. And while it makes sense to me, I've got to aware of the typical mind fallacy. Still I have heard many others share the belief that when you're in the zone, it's best to keep going. Ultimately, my confidence is moderate.

Experience solitude

What is solitude? Laying down at the beach and reading a magazine? Walking through the city while listening to a podcast? Strolling through a museum?

No, no, and no.

Solitude is when you are isolated from the input of other minds. When you read a magazine, you're "taking in" someone else's thoughts - the magazine author. When you listen to a podcast, you're "taking in" the podcast creator's thoughts. When you walk through a museum, you're "taking in" the thoughts of the artists.

Solitude is when you sit on a park bench alone and write in your journal. Solitude is when you lay down at the park, stare up at the sky, and daydream. Solitude is when you take a jog through the forest. Solitude is when you go for a hike and ponder where you are in life.

As you are probably sensing, solitude is important. For your productivity, creativity, and emotional wellbeing.

Check out Cal Newport's article on the topic.


Epistemic status: Newport talks about it. He's a reliable source in my mind. He seems to have gotten his information from reading three books on solitude. It makes intuitive sense to me. I'd say that I'm moderately confident in the idea that true solitude is important to ones productivity.

Exercise

It can be easy to think, "I don't have enough time to exercise". That type of logic is wrong.

There seems to be a good amount of research indicating that exercise is very important for ones productivity. This Harvard Business Review article may be a good starting point.

I also find it noteworthy that Paul Graham, who has a ton of experience mentoring startup founders, includes exercise in his short list of "things you should be doing":

If you’re ever unsure if you should be doing what you’re doing during YC, ask yourself this question: ‘Am I building our product? Am I talking to users? Am I exercising?’. If you’re not doing one of these things, you’re doing the wrong thing.

Epistemic status: Pretty confident. There seems to be a lot of "official" and anecdotal evidence supporting it. I would be more confident if I were more familiar with the research.

Think easy

Perform "productive meditation"

In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport calls productive meditation something where you're occupied physically, but not mentally. For example, a walk, jog, bike ride, house cleaning, gardening, sowing and taking a shower are all examples of productive meditation. A lot of good ideas happen during productive meditation.

Try googling for "good ideas in the shower". You'll see that the idea that people have good ideas in the shower is quite common. A closer look would probably find that productive meditation is something that has been discovered across time and cultures.


Epistemic status: There seems to be a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting this. I am not aware of any academic research, but the anecdotal evidence alone makes me pretty confident.

Follow through

Reflect

As I explain in the Meta section, I've known about all of this stuff for a while, but it hasn't actually translated into success for me. I think a big issue is that I haven't spent nearly enough time reflecting.

I hear about a piece of advice and attempt to implement it. When my attempt fails, the inertia of my life kinda just takes over and I never return to the piece of advice. It usually remains as "a thing I should be doing" somewhere in my mind, but I have too many other things going on to find the time to figure out what is going wrong and how I could fix it.

This is stupid of me. Reflection is necessary. You have to think about what is going right, what is going wrong, and how you can improve. You have to iterate.

Yes, I may have other things to do, but should they really be prioritized over reflection? Probably not.


Epistemic status: I get the impression that this is super important. I recall Cal Newport talking about it, but I can't find the right posts to link to. I don't have enough knowledge and experience so I don't think I'd say I'm more than moderately/pretty confident about this one.

Maybe I'm just bad at implementing things. Maybe others are good at it, and reflection isn't too important for them. I can think of many people who struggle to successfully implement things, and who seem to be a great candidate for a prescription of weekly reflection. But there may also be counterexamples. And I may happen to surround myself with people who are bad at implementing things for whatever reason.

Use a productivity cheat sheet

There is a lot of productivity advice out there. I don't know about you, but I find it to be rather overwhelming. I find myself asking, "Aren't there techniques I'm forgetting to implement?"

A sensible solution to this issue is to have a productivity cheat sheet. Write down the things you should be doing, and the techniques you want to employ. Keep that piece of paper with you whenever you're working. Hopefully that'll make it easier to follow through.


Epistemic status: Seems reasonable. I base this almost solely on my intuition, rather than actual experience and data. I don't even really have any anecdotal data on this one. I don't know anyone who has tried it. Cal Newport has a post on it, and as you know by now, I'm a fan of his, so that causes me to update rather heavily.

Reward yourself

The Big Bang Theory - Sheldon Trains Penny [YouTube]

When you succeed at doing what you set out to do, give yourself a cookie! Or a piece of candy. Or whatever it is that you find enjoyable.


Epistemic status: It seems that there is a decent amount of literature supporting this idea. Luke Muehlhauser links to Self-Reinforcement: Theoretical and Methodological Considerations in support of rewarding yourself. In skimming through it, it seems to indicate that self reinforcement works often enough, but also seems to indicate that there are caveats. If I was more familiar with the literature, I'd be more confident about this.

Personally, rewarding yourself doesn't feel like something that will always be effective. I recall anecdotal experiences where attempts to reward oneself didn't really work out.

Punish yourself

When you don't actually do what you set out to do... PuNiSh YoUrSelF!!!!! Then you'll think twice before failing to follow through. Right?

If you want to give this one a shot, there is Beeminder and Stickk available to help you out.


Epistemic status: I get the impression that there is academic research on this, but I personally am not familiar with it. If I was more familiar with it, I would be more confident that punishing yourself is effective.

Beeminder seems to have the approval of the LessWrong community. This makes me feel more confident that punishing yourself for failure is effective.

Similar to the above section on rewarding yourself, my personal impression and anecdotal data doesn't necessarily support the idea that punishing yourself is effective. But that's just me.

Departing advice: Don't make yourself crazy

One of my favorite LessWrong posts is Reason as memetic immune disorder. The big takeaway is that sometimes, becoming more rational may lead you to have less success.

In the context of seeking to improve your productivity, I could certainly see this happening.

It has happened to me. Over the years, I have learned a bunch of stuff about productivity. It provided me with some ammunition, but not enough to actually see results. I didn't quite make it past the threshold.

I had learned enough to realize everything I was doing wrong, but not quite enough to transition me to a state of success. So instead of making me feel happy and productive, it made me feel guilty and frustrated.

Please don't let this happen to you. Productivity is difficult. If it weren't then we would all be as successful as Nobel laureates and Olympic medalists.

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The approaches listed here are essentially the approaches I've adopted over the past few years (reading many of the same books). But I want to flag that there's an alternate approach some people have argued for, which isn't represented here, roughly summarize as "the integrated approach" or "the non-adversarial approach."

i.e. My entire productivity scheme is about outwitting my baser instincts. Facebook automatically disabled for hours at a time every day. My computer automatically turns off every half hour between 11pm and 7am. I train habits to reduce willpower costs, etc. My inner monkey (and inner lizard) are crazy and "I" (my inner sage) just try to not even give them the option of messing up my inner sage's plans.

But there's an alternate approach that's more about integrating your various desires. Dialoging between the part of your brain that wants to veg-out on Netflix and the part that wants to work on writing and the part that wants to prepare for interviews at day-jobs you expect to hate.

And the goal is something like

a) figure out what all those parts want

b) actually explore the evidence until all pieces of you actually share a common conception of how the world works. i.e. both understanding that if you watch netflix all day you'll run out of money and this is bad, and have a plan to acquire money that your monkey-brain actually believes in. (whereas sometimes people have latched onto a crude plan like "if I work harder and use more willpower I will have more money", which the monkey is rightfully skeptical of).

c) don't rely on willpower - using willpower is evidence that you are doing something suboptimally. You should use willpower to metaphorically move a boulder onto a hill, and then let the downhill move the boulder the rest of the way to its destination

I haven't actually gotten this to work for me. I know of a few people who seem to make it work for them. My impression is that it's more up-front effort but ends with a more powerful sort of productivity that you get by trying to outwit yourself.

See Replacing Guilt by Nate Soares for a sequence on how to get to this sort of mindset: http://mindingourway.com/guilt/

ePUB version here: https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/rFrefJgPvYkdtG7Pt/nate-soares-replacing-guilt-series-compiled-in-epub-format

I think the way I approach productivity falls more into the camp you describe, and I'm glad to see more being written up about it, like this comment.

I think this comment mainly applies to the sections on preventing procrastination and on following through.

Thank you for bringing this up! I should have mentioned this initially. I updated the post to make a note of it. Personally I am skeptical of the integrated approach, but I don't know much about it and am interested in hearing from those who do.

"Don't rely on willpower" - I've seen a lot of guides talk about the importance of habit so as to minimise the amount of willpower required.

The biggest pieces of advice I have are:

(1) Try things. Testing most productivity hacks is really cheap. Try it for a week and if you don't have a noticeable success, stop doing it. Most things you'll try might fail, and that's fine; you only lost a few days of effort.

(2) Don't be afraid to switch things up if they've stopped working for you. For example, I've been feeling pretty sick in the morning lately, so I moved my recreational time from the evening to the morning. Just because evening recreational time worked great for me in the past doesn't mean it's suited for me right now.

(3) If you're mentally ill, don't assume that you can't pay any attention to productivity advice until you're better. Yes, there's a cap on how well you'll do as long as you're still mentally ill; yes, advice specific to your mental illness will probably also help. But productivity advice can make the difference between a totally wasted day and two hours of good work.

This is a beautifully written article and a model for other lesswrongers to consider. Thank you.

A couple of thoughts...

A trigger action plan for when it's time to take a break: When you are feeling frustrated and irritated it may be time for a break. Not just "this is hard" but "I am getting nowhere".

The importance of systems. If things in your life are annoying you, maybe you don't have a good system for them. Find the best way to organize the thing (or decide not to do it, or to outsource it, etc) and then do that. After a few months these systems become effortless habits. Deciding whether you feel like going to the gym is not a good use of brainpower. Is it Wednesday morning 7am (alarm goes off)? Yes ? Am I sick? No? Go to gym.

Thanks for compiling this. It's frustrating that there isn't an indepth resource of productivity tecnhiques that you can sort by epistemic rigour and effect size. (e.g. <https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit> ) I think it would be a fantasic resource for the community if we could create this but it's a lot of work. Corectly reading the research is not easy (on that point you have got Mental Contrasting wrong) but would be needed for something like this to be valuable.

I think this is a very good post that captures a lot of useful information.

I admit, though, that I did not read all of it, and I merely went through to see what might be new to me / how you categorized the different things.

Slight tangent:

I worry about the practicality of writing rationality stuff and how the medium affects the practice. Like, to what extent does writing something like this have an impact on allowing people to actually learn / execute on such skills?

EX: There seem to be pedgagoical techniques even in the writing medium that we could take more advantage of, e.g. Eliezer's old Advanced Epistemology 2012 sequence which gave readers puzzles to think about, or, if we allow the full power of interactivity, stuff like what what Coursera does with homework / quizzes.

One thing that seems important is the state that you're in when you read stuff / what the framing is. EX: If you're reading this stuff on your downtime and not at an opportunity where you can actively practice stuff, then the chance of this sort of info cashing out into real actionables is definitely lower.

(Of course I'm not saying there's no value in having stuff like this primed / available / integrated into your models. Just that there's a difference between that (which I think is what happens to most people when they read stuff like this) and actually going out into the world and doing stuff.)

It's often hard to do this when you've already got time going into trying to do other things; the right opportunities in your day that allow you to be actively engaged or doing deliberate practice seem limited.

So there seem to be a few things here:

  • 1) One is about how we probably could improve the whole platform on which we're trying to teach rationality and extend it past these ridiculous essays (of which many of us are guilty of writing) and actually try applying more of the techniques regarding effective learning that we write about: stuff in the general vicinity of optimizing for reader consumption / takeaways.

  • 2) Two is about how creating the affordances in 1) might not even be enough because doing basically anything well requires a dedicated level of attention and effort that most people have a limited budget of. Realistically, I expect only a few people who read a massive post like this to have it affect their real-life actions. There's still an intention-action gap here that we can't fully bridge via text. But it's not just this gap; it's also about how people don't always have enough of a budget to integrate this stuff because other things demand their limited attention.

  • 3) Conflicting endgames: There's definitely a whole bunch of value in charting out and trying to summarize existing research into a nice synthesis. And this post is an example of that, so maybe the point isn't that we hope people can learn all of them from this post alone. But given that most productivity / research synthesis posts on LW look like this, I worry that we might conflate posts like these with posts that are designed to try and teach you a skill, which might look quite different. (I think operationalization, answering the question of "What does this abstract skill look like in practice?" is a huge part of it, and it's still largely neglected 'round these parts.)

Interesting thoughts. I agree that straight informational text like this probably isn't the most pedagogically effective.

Small supplemental point (I think worth adding into the relevant section): Freedom.to is a variant on the SelfControl concept that lets you schedule regular sessions across all your devices. (i.e. I have my computers and iDevices all disable distracting sites during working and sleeping hours, with small breaks throughout the day)

Freedom costs money whereas self-control doesn't, but I've found it very worth it.

Freedom is slightly easier to circumvent if you're technically savvy and are dedicated to circumventing it - I found it valuable to "train" on SelfControl for awhile to get used to the idea that I had a thing I couldn't circumvent,

THANK YOU!!! I've updated my post to include Freedom, and am really excited to give it a shot myself.

I have some trouble resisting WSOP (an online poker app) and the Messages app, so the feature of blocking apps is something that I'm excited about.

I'm also excited about the schedules. Sometimes I forget to turn on SelfControl, and then find myself procrastinating. With schedules, that won't be a problem anymore!

Great post! Some small formatting fixes that might help people searching this list.

'Exercise' the last section under 'Rest' isn't listed in the contents.

Two of the headings have non obvious renames for anyone doing a really quick skim. 'Expect to actually make progress' becomes 'Expect work to be effective' and 'Actually care about the task you're doing' becomes 'Increase the value of your task'.

Thanks!

'Exercise' the last section under 'Rest' isn't listed in the contents.

Fixed.

Two of the headings have non obvious renames for anyone doing a really quick skim. 'Expect to actually make progress' becomes 'Expect work to be effective' and 'Actually care about the task you're doing' becomes 'Increase the value of your task'.

I like "Expect work to be effective" over "Expect to actually make progress". The latter does indeed seem unclear. It seems to beg the question, "progress on what?". So I have updated the article to use the former.

However, I still like "Actually care about the task you're doing" over "Increase the value of your task". The latter seems unclear to me. It seems to beg the questions, "What does that mean? That I should do tasks that are more socially valuable? More likely to have me make progress towards my long term goals? Things I subjectively value?".

I don't know the google trace for this off the top of my head, but I recall a systematic review of top tier innovators which found that the only truly consistent thing among all of them was ritualized walks (as in regular and intentional).

More broadly, my own efforts in this area output the upstream action of sharpening perceptual clarity, because I perceived the two biggest levers: noticing opportunities to chunk into deliberate practice, and noticing when impulses/palliatives were affecting me were both predicated on noticing. It worked far beyond what I naively guessed was possible.

Speaking to the efficacy of rituals: they help build the meta system of self trust which enables better coordination between the parts of yourself that care about vastly different things. Leak proof boxes are way more efficient for containing focused work. Internal parts that can trust boxes not to leak don't try to hijack core attention as often.

Thanks for this - a useful resource.

As it happens I've read many books & web sites about productivity over the last decade or so, and made vast numbers of notes & mindmaps, though not organized it into a form suitable for dissemination like this. (I've had plans for a while to write up many new thoughts arising from all this research/thinking, but that's a big job.)

One recommendation arising: of the various authors I've read, the one with the most original and well-thought-through ideas (and usually, though not always, right IMO) is Mark Forster. His easiest read is his most recent book (being a bit of a listicle) - Secrets of Productive People: 50 Techniques To Get Things Done.

I like this in that I have also noticed there is very little in the way of bundling up this kind of well-known how-to-live advice, so having it all in one place is possibly useful. I suspect why there's not a lot of this sort of thing, though, is that most of the value is in compiling the information and very little of it is in the reading of it.

One thing that I've discovered as I've successfully become more effective at shaping the world is that everyone was telling me all of this advice for ages but I either didn't believe it or didn't know how to use it. Simply knowing of it was not enough, and in fact often just knowing what to do led to weird anti-effective strategies of trying to cargo-cult the advice, like spending so much energy tracking and documenting tasks that there was little left over for actually doing said tasks.

Again, I think this is a great first step. After all, I knew all this stuff but hadn't bothered to really write it down anywhere (well, I sort of did try to do that once but not very well). The challenge seems to be how to share this knowledge in a way that people will pick it up, and if current self-help literature is any indication it seems to be a pretty tricky business.

Related to this: there are several points in the article where you mention (but don't link) a book that explains a concept in more detail. (i.e. "Deep Work.")

And on one hand you have sort of summarized the core point of Deep Work... but part of the reason books like Deep Work or Peak are useful is because they provide lots of context and anecdotes and inspiring speeches that cause you to take the ideas seriously.

So another update I think'd be useful here is for each section to directly link to the places that explain things in more detail, with notes like "if you'd like to really act on this, here's an easy next step you can take right now."

Great points. Regarding the lack of links, I was thinking that I had linked to it enough and that it can be annoying to have too many links. But on second thought, I don't think it's actually that annoying, and I intend for this post to be very modular, so for the use case where someone just arrives at a particular section that doesn't have a link, well that wouldn't be good.

And on one hand you have sort of summarized the core point of Deep Work... but part of the reason books like Deep Work or Peak are useful is because they provide lots of context and anecdotes and inspiring speeches that cause you to take the ideas seriously.

I very much agree, thank you for making this point. I updated the post to make a note of this. I did try to include lots of links to resources that elaborated on what I was talking about. I guess I could have an explicit Further Reading section for each subsection of this post, but that sorta seems like overkill to me, especially since Deep Work and Peak would be recommended numerous times, which gets repetitive. So instead I just noted the resources that are used heavily in this post up front. That plus the links to blog posts and stuff within the section seems like it'd be enough.

What do you think?

"I suspect why there's not a lot of this sort of thing, though, is that most of the value is in compiling the information and very little of it is in the reading of it." - I don't expect that many people will get much value from this post if they simply read through it once. On the other hand, if they return to it a few times and scan through looking for techniques they haven't tried or which they were doing and got out of the habit of doing and experiment with it, I expect that it would have a significant effect. This is much easier when you have it all in the one place, instead of spread across a large number of articles.

I agree that difficulty seems to be in how to actually implement the advice, rather than simply knowing about the techniques.