I've recently asked how people have become more hard-working. I compiled the answers across the EA Forum and LessWrong (and some private messages) in a list for myself to make it easier for me to experiment with the suggestions. I thought I'd share the list here in case it's useful for anyone else. I also list the things that people said didn't work and a couple of other things.

This wasn't done to be "proper", so the list is sloppy in many ways: I liberally paraphrased what people said; often I could have easily counted something two people said as the same or two different things, which would change the way I counted how often something was mentioned; I very roughly grouped the things that were said into categories but easily could have categorised many things differently.

Notable points

Individual points that were mentioned the most: 

  • (Soft) accountability (deadlines, beeminder, accountability buddy, posting about your goals, boss as a service, promising friends) (9)
  • Working on interesting problems/enjoyable work (and in an enjoyable work environment) (8)
  • Focusmate/Coworking (often poms) (7)

Some things that weren't mentioned a lot but that I found interesting:

  • Identifying (or being thought of) as hard-working (3)
  • Categorising work as "not work" and instead as something enjoyable, adjusting work environment accordingly (1)

Other things

  • Age at the time of the shift in hard-workingnesswas usually not mentioned, but when it was mentioned, it was between 20-30
  • Some people managed to become permanently more hard-working after experiencing one period of working hard, even when they switched to less enjoyable or just very different work. That initial period would either be induced by external pressure or by working hard on something they didn't consider work. (3)

Full list of what made people more hard-working

Here is the full list, ordered by how often things in a category were named. (Note that often the same person would list multiple things in the category, so the sums aren't summing over people)

Thing that workedHow many people mentioned
Focusmate/Coworking (often poms)8
(Regular) contact with other people to talk about work, debug, check-in etc.4
Identifying (or being thought of) as hard-working3
Surrounding yourself with ~hard-working people in life in general3
Supportive work environment2
Having a manager1
What kind of work 
Working on interesting problems/enjoyable work (and in an enjoyable work environment)8
Feeling like you're good at what you're doing, getting positive feedback4
Working on things you consider important3
More clear tasks, feedback, endpoints etc.2
Less pressuring work1
Making work more fun1
At least one (work) thing you like per day1
External pressure 
(Soft) accountability (deadlines, beeminder, accountability buddy, posting about your goals, boss as a service, promising friends)9
Children/poverty: External motivation to do work2
Almost being fired1
Learning more about yourself and your goals 
Figure out which work hours are most useful, schedule different kinds of work for different times to work more efficiently3
Thinking about what you want to do with life and what (work) motivates you3
Experimenting with what actually makes you (less) productive e.g. via tracking and realising that productivity advice is very personal2
Repeated experience of joy from achieving big things1
Deciding how many hours you endorse working1
Misc. specific techniques 
Productivity books2
Productivity systems2
Having policies for ways of making time productive when there are trade-offs e.g. with money1
Physical Kanban boards1
Walking meetings with yourself1
Leverage momentum: Start the day with a small experience of success and let that spiral1
Work diary (to spur ambition)1
Notes in the evening to get back into it the next day1
Stimulants and distractions 
ADHD meds3
Good App-blockers or other removing distractions3
Being emotionally in tune with work 
Not forcing yourself to do (certain) work when not feeling like it and doubling down when feeling productive2
Noticing when you haven't actually decided and committed to work and then doing that2
Not feeling guilty about too little or too much work-life balance1
Categorising work as "not work" and instead as something enjoyable, adjusting work environment accordingly1
Dealing with mental health problems2
Being strict about at least one day off1
Do enjoyable things to recover instead of resting1


List of what failed to make people more hard-working

Some people mentioned what didn't work for them. Note that I didn't ask for it, so very few people did this.

Thing that didn't workMentioned
Productivity hacks4
Self-set "fake" accountability1
Internal work2
Exercise, diet, sleep1
Taking more breaks1
Switching roles1

Thanks for everyone who offered their stories and advice. I really appreciate it :)

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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:06 AM

What do you feel like your plan is now moving forward? Like do you have a specific subsect of this you hope to try out?

First of all:  Thanks for asking. I was being lazy with this and your questions forced me to come up with a response which forced me to actually think about my plan.

Concrete changes

1) I'm currently doing week-daily in-person Pomodoro co-working with a friend, but I had planned that before this post IIRC, and definitely know for a while that that's a huge boost for me.

In-person co-working and the type of work I do seem somewhat situational/hard to sustain/hard to quickly change sometimes. For some reason, (perhaps because I feel a bit meh about virtual co-working) I've never tried Focusmate and this made me more likely to try it in the future if and when my in-person co-working fizzled out.

2) The things that were a high mix of resonating with me and new were "Identifying as hard-working" and "Finding ways of reframing work as non-work" (I was previously aware that often things would be fun if I didn't think of them as work and are "Ugh" as soon as there are work, but just knowing that there is another person who is successfully managing this property of theirs is really encouraging and helpful for thinking about solutions to this.)

Over the last few months, I've introduced the habit of checking in with myself at various times during the day and especially when I'm struggling with something (kind of spontaneous mini meditations). I'm hoping that I can piggy-back on that to try out the identity and reframing thing. (Although this comment just prompted be to actually go and write those down on post-its and hang them where I can see them, so I don't forget, so thanks for asking!)

3) I am currently testing out having a productive hobby for my weekends. (This ties into not reframing work things as "not work".  Also, I am often strict with my weekends in a way that I wanna experiment with relaxing given one of the responses I got.  Also prompted by the concept of doing something enjoyable and rewarding to regenerate instead of resting.) I'll monitor the effects on my mental health on that quite closely because I think it could end up quite badly but has been fun this weekend.

3.5) I often refrain from doing work things I feel energy and motivation for because it's too late in the day or otherwise "not work-time". I think this overall serves me well in various ways. But as a result of this post, I am more likely to try relaxing this into the future a bit. I am already tracking my work and sleep hours, so hopefully, that will give me some basis to check how it affects my productivity.  (And also 4 will hopefully help.)

4) Not directly as a consequence of this post, but related: I started thinking about how to set work targets for different time intervals and consistently setting and reviewing work targets. (It was kind of crazy to realise that I don't already do this! Plans ≠ Targets.) This is a priority for me at the moment and I am interviewing people about this. I expect this to feed into this whole hard-working topic and maybe some of the responses about working hard will influence how I go about this.

Other minor updates or things that I won't try immediately but that I'm more likely to try in the future now:

  • Decided not to prioritise improving diet, exercise, and sleep for the sake of becoming more hard-working.
  • Not being frustrated that there is no magical link: general growth as a person --> more hard-working
  • Maybe: Using the Freedom App (I've made good experiences with Cold Turkey but it's not on my phone.)
  • Maybe: Doing more on paper
  • Maybe: Kanban boards
  • Maybe: Meetings with myself
  • Maybe: Experiment with stimulants (I can get them prescribed but dropped them for various reasons)

Some overall remarks

My biggest update was just learning about people permanently becoming more hard-working at all well into their 20s through means that aren't only either meds or changing roles, meaning there is a point to me trying more non-med things that might increase how hard-working I am in the short-term. Previously, I was really unsure to which degree hard-workingness might just be a very stable trait across a lifetime. At least if you don't drastically change the kind of work you do or your work environment in ways that are difficult to actually pull off.  Tbf, I'm still not sure but am more hopeful than previously.

From that point of view, I found the people who mentioned having a concrete, time-constrained period where they were much more hard-working than previously for some reason and then keeping this going forward even when ~everything about their work situation changed really encouraging.

For context: I tracked my work hours for roughly a year. My week-to-week tends to be very heterogenous and through the tracking, I realised that none of the things I tracked during that year seemed to have any relationship to how much I work week-to-week other than having hard "real" deadlines and the overall trend was very flat, which felt a bit discouraging.

I'm surprised you decided not to prioritise exercise!

I realised reading this comment that when I ask myself, "How have I become more hardworking?" I don't think about exercise at all. But if I asked myself the mirror question - "How have I become less hardworking?" - I think about the time when I accidentally stopped exercising (because I moved further away from a dojo and couldn't handle the public transit - and then, some years later, because of confining myself to my apartment during the pandemic) and it was basically like taking a sledgehammer to my mental health. I can't recommend exercise strongly enough; it helps with sleep, mood, motivation, energy, everything. (Not everyone experiences this, but enough people do that it seems very much worth trying!)

Exercise in general is pretty great, yes. Especially if done outdoors, imo.

Thanks for such an in depth and wonderful response, I have a couple of questions.

On 1. Perhaps the biggest reason I've stayed away from Pomodors is the question of how much time for breaks you can take before you need to start logging it as a reduction in time worked. Where have you come out on that debate? I.e. maybe you've found increased productivity makes the breaks totally worth it and this hasn't really been an issue for you.

On 3. How are you strict with your weekends? The vibe I get from the rest is that normally you make sure what you're doing is restful?

On 3.5. Adding to the anecdata, I keep a fairly sporadic schedule that often extends past normal hours, and I've found that it works pretty well for me. I do find that when I'm feeling a bit down that switching back to normal hours is better for me though, because I'm apt to start playing video games in the middle of the day because I think "ah, I'm remote and have a flexible schedule, so I can do what I want!" when in reality playing video games during the day is usually just me doing a poor job of dealing with something that then ends up not resolved later and leaves me in a tricky spot to get work done. 

On 4, I'd love to hear more about your targets: are they like just more concrete than goals? Do you have some sort of accountability system that you keep yourself from overriding? I think I'm coming to realize I work better with deadlines, but I'm still really unsure how to implement them in a way that forces me to stick to them but also that allows me to override it in circumstances where I'd be better off if I could push something back a bit.

I liked both this and your prior post that led to this one. So I am hoping the following doesn't come across as critical or dismissive -- I think of it as complementary.

I struggle a bit with the "more hard working" term. Just what does that mean to people. In the simplest level it just means more effort/focused time. But that doesn't include results and at the end of the day I'm more of a results produced than just effort extended type. (I also assume that those that provided input to your survey have some direct link in mind about a positive effort and output relationship when suggesting working harder.)

A while back I was musing about s similar type of question and thought about the 80-20 rule. If I can get 80% of the results/gains from 20% of the effort am I going to be better off doing five things half-asses as it were or fully committing to one thing.  I didn't pursue that question far enough to say how that answer plays out or what the key criteria might be. But, for the comment here will assume doing 5 things with 20% effort over the one thing with 100% effort is the more productive option.

I think in that situation, I would always see myself as not working very hard on anything -- clearly I could work harder in any of the five areas. At the same time it would also be true that I am putting in 100% total effort. How might I assess my own level of work? If I only think about any one of the 5 "jobs" I am doing clearly I'm a huge slacker. But it's not clear that increasing my work in any one area would be good. And, as I am, across the 5 "jobs", putting in 100% effort increasing to more than 100% would be possible short-term but not sustainable and might break the 80-20 rule relationship to where I'm getting something like 70-22.