100 ways to get more done
Ozan Onay and Ash Fontana — 01 Sep 2011
A friend recently asked us what he could do to reduce procrastination and be more effective. We gave him a few tips but mentioned that there are “hundreds of other things” he could do.
So, here are the first hundred that came to mind. All have worked for one or both of us, but your mileage may vary.
- Buy the most comfortable pair of over-ear headphones you can find. Wear them all the time, even if you have the music off, as a sign that you are not to be disturbed. If somebody speaks to or waves at you, you can get away with outright ignoring them.
- Don't eat at your desk. Don't read the paper at your desk. Don't watch YouTube or make personal phone calls at your desk. Treat your desk as a sacred work space so that next time you sit down, you subconsciously know why you're there and what you need to do.
- Clear everything off your desk at the start and end of every day. Don't allow yourself the distraction that comes from clutter or personal effects; every little item, even a pen, has the ability to distract. Think of yourself as a chef—before you start the next dish you need to put away the utensils you aren't using and wipe the bench, otherwise you could hurt yourself or contaminate someone's food.
- The same applies to clearing your desktop. Create a ritual of closing unused apps and Chrome tabs, saving and filing away notes, and deleting temporary files from your desktop. Do this whenever you complete a task, and before long you will find a great deal of satisfaction in hitting ⌘Q.
- Manage your posture, light sources and airflow. Bad posture prevents full breaths and thus oxygenation of your blood, straining eyes are tired eyes, and hot air means energy expended on cooling down.
- Avoid starting work with a nagging emotion or stressful distraction on your mind. If this sounds hard, just internalize the following truism: either you can deal with the matter right now, or you can't. If you can deal with it now then deal with it now. If you can't, then there's no harm in scheduling a later time to worry about it. Surprisingly, this works no matter how substantial the emotion/stressor. Worried that your partner is being unfaithful, or that the mole on your arm may be cancerous, or that the Soviet Union is building missile bases in Cuba? Set a Remember The Milk task to stress out about it from 7pm to 8pm next Thursday, and get back to work.
- Close all inlets of communication. If you are on your machine, close all chat applications, disable growl notifications and other notifications, and block yourself out of Gmail. Switch your phone to silent, or better yet turn it off and put it out of reach. Wear headphones, or furrow your eyebrows in such a way as to suggest that Bad Things Will Happen if you are interrupted. You are sitting down to complete an important task, not to be ready to respond to stimulus. The ideal state is one where you are so focussed that a tap on the shoulder would freak you out.
- Have a "starting work" ritual—a sequence of things that you do before starting work that you will then always associate with work. For Ash, this is making some tea, getting a glass of water, opening all apps that he needs for the task, closing all others, queuing an hour-long mix from one of his favorite DJs on SoundCloud then putting on his headphones. Oz will close all applications, sit as upright as possible in his chair, take a deep breath and crank up the dubstep. You can light incense and strike a Himalayan singing bowl if that's what works for you—as long as it involves some sort of evocative stimulus to signal to your subconscious that it's time to focus. Detailed esoteric rituals are best, because then you feel like an idiot if you go through the motions but fail to actually start working.
- Listen to dubstep, a genre of electronic dance music invented to help programmers work faster (also works for the general population). If dubstep isn't doing it for you, try drum and bass, breakbeats or Brownian noise. Remember, you want to pick the music (or sounds) that will make you work more effectively, not what will impress your peers or help you attract a mate. Lie about what you listen to at work, if you have to.
- Learn to recognize when your work is making you anxious so that you know to improve your skills to re-enter your flow channel. Everybody will have their own tells—Oz knows this is happening if he sighs before speaking to a colleague (a sign that he's been intermittently holding his breath while working on a tough problem) or if he finds himself sitting on the edge of his bed in the morning, for an extended period of time, with only one sock on, thinking about the day ahead.
- Learn to recognize when you are bored at work so that you know to increase the difficulty of your work to re-enter your flow channel. Your tells should be quite obvious, if you're paying attention. You will typically find yourself procrastinating, looking for small, mindless tasks to do, or contemplating dinner. If you're a manager, you might be on the brink of booking a meeting. Oz's tells include going for two coffees in one day or realizing that a new album has started playing. His counter-tell is making a cup of tea, then accidentally let it go cold without taking a sip.
- Do some further research on flow so that whenever you have a chance you can opt for fulfilling rather than temporarily pleasurable activities. Some of Csikszentmihalyi's conclusions are non-trivial, for instance shooting the breeze with old friends is deceptively fun but rarely fulfilling, whereas talking to a stranger can sometimes induce a flow state.
- Find, then stick to a good task list application. We both use Remember The Milk and highly recommend it. Pick an application that's sophisticated enough that you're likely to still be learning new tricks after a year of daily use and that is well-maintained by its developers. For RTM, your mastery of the tool will involve learning the Smart Add symbols and keyboard shortcuts finding a few smart lists that work for you then trawling the forum for pro tips.
- Write achievable tasks. Heuristic: if a stranger were watching you work, would she be able to pinpoint the minute when you are "done"? This might require picking an arbitrary number of things to list or minutes to spend. If you avoiding picking an arbitrary number and plan to do something to your satisfaction, you will invariably give it insufficient or excessive attention. "Plan career" is not an achievable task. "Write down ten jobs that my mentors have worked" is much better.
Don't write down large tasks. Don't even break down a large task into smaller tasks. Instead, think of the first task that can be performed in a single sitting that will lead to your goal. This might look like "spend five minutes brainstorming wedding gift ideas for Richie and Lisa". The next task you schedule will likely depend on the outcome of the first. "Buy Richie and Lisa a wedding gift" is achievable (see above) but problematic as you may discover that you need to seek someone else's opinion, go to a particular store or wait for a particular date.
If you use the Pomodoro Technique, tasks should be short enough to fit into a single Pomodoro. Otherwise, you will need to learn your tolerance for working on a particular type of task for an extended time period, keeping in mind the cost of diminishing returns. For instance, Oz knows that he can brainstorm for 2-3 minutes with full creativity, research something on the Internet for 10-15 minutes without getting distracted, and write code for 20-30 minutes without accidentally introducing bugs.
- Use imperative verbs. This seems trivial, but a list of tasks that resemble "send nicky a birthday email" or "find the three highest-rated headphones on amazon" turns out to be easier to scan, understand and attack than "nicky birthday message" or "three headphone options amazon".
- Priorities are not tasks. Feel free to set yourself hundreds of small tasks for a day, but never have more priorities than you have arms. You should be able to immediately recall your day's priorities as you walk in the door to work, and be able to quickly triage potential tasks against your priorities.
- Do your best to estimate how hard the task is, how long it is likely to take and whether or not you will be successful. Sometimes we cannot avoid doing a task, but generally we can opt to work on something else or find an alternative solution, so it is important to avoid the planning fallacy. The first step is to be aware of the planning fallacy and start observing it in your own and others' behavior.
Ask an objective outsider who has accomplished an analogous objective in the past to estimate the cost or difficulty involved. It turns out that knowledge of specific circumstances makes you less likely to accurately predict events so give as few details as possible. Asking somebody else is one of the most straightforward ways to take an Outside View an avoid the planning fallacy. Make your own guess before asking the outsider, so that you can simultaneously use this as a self-calibration exercise.
Pay attention to your feelings when considering whether or not to seek the opinion of an outsider on a particular question. If you feel uneasy or find yourself making excuses, this could be a sign that you are in denial about your chances of success. Common excuses are "I don't want to waste her time", "I'd be too embarrassed to ask" and "he might steal my idea". If you find yourself saying these, you are probably succumbing to the planning fallacy through a process of self delusion. Nobody is going to steal your idea, people generally find it flattering to be asked for advice, and embarrassment is all in your mind.
- If you've done the task a number of times before, you should ask yourself a series of questions to avoid the tyranny of poorly formed habits. Consider, why did you form this habit in the first place? Has the context changed? If you knew then what you know now, would you have started this practice in the first place? If the habit is worth continuing, ask what lessons you learnt last time you performed the task. Why isn't the task easier this time around? Is this something you can automate? Remember, you are what you don't automate.
- Before you start a task, consider how much you would pay for somebody else to do it. Think of an actual number. Take that much cash out of your wallet, if it helps make the exercise more realistic. Now, if the number isn't very high, get somebody else to do the task for you! If you're reluctant to outsource the task, you might take this as a sign that you're irrationally keen to work on an unimportant task.
- Calculate your hourly rate. This will make the above step easier. Hint: this only works if you don't make exceptions. It's no good to think "my hourly rate is $100, and I'm unlikely to get $100 of value out this coffee meeting, but I'll do it any way as a favor to a friend". If you find yourself consciously making exceptions, either you're incorrectly valuing your time or you're incorrectly valuing the things that you're doing.
- If you are about to start a task for the purpose of X and Y, brainstorm alternative approaches that will achieve both objectives independent of one another.
- Ask somebody else what you should do today. Don't give them a list of options as this will stifle their imagination, just ask, "what do you think I should work on today?"
- Before you start working on a long task, explain to someone else why you decided to tackle that problem instead of something else. If there's nobody nearby, speak to your coffee mug. If you're reluctant to verbalize your rationale, take that as a sign that you should probably be working on something else.
- Get a friend to audit your task list or calendar at regular intervals. This will ensure that you are, at least periodically, verbalizing your rationale and calibrating yourself against an outsider.
- Write an email to a respected acquaintance (not a forgiving friend) and list everything you did today. You'll probably be too embarrassed to hit send, so consider what you'll change tomorrow to make it an email you can be proud of.
- Recognize when you're just doing something to signal status or sophistication. It's fine to consciously seek these things, but many people unconsciously make one poor decision after another to signal status where it won't deliver appreciable value or help them achieve their goals.
- Once you've decided what to work on, hide everything else on your todo list. This will reduce the chance of procrastinating on small tasks.
- Don't do something just because "it's your job". You have more control over your job than you think. Everything you do should achieve your work priorities and doing something just 'because it's your job' perpetuates habits, often bad, and not often even formed by you.
- Refuse to do busy work as it can create a bad habit of ineffective work. Work out why you're doing this instead of real work, or just go home and engage in Structured Procrastination.
- Understand loss aversion and sunk costs so that you can quickly identify when you're falling for this particularly costly bias that can make you work in the past rather than affect the future.
- Learn how to actually change your mind. It turns out that this is incredibly hard to do. The better you are at changing your mind, the less time you'll spend working on the wrong problem or applying the wrong solution.
- Occasionally take an outsider's view. What would your far-future self say if he saw you doing this? Would he think you were wasting your time? If you were giving advice to a friend, would you recommend they work on what you're working on now?
- Use a single Gmail account. If you have a separate work email address, have it forwarded to your Gmail account. Having a single place for your email will help you with Inbox Zero and similar techniques. Choosing Gmail as your email client will help you become a power user.
- Practice Inbox Zero. Do not open Gmail unless you are prepared to work through everything in your inbox. This is easy to achieve if you use a variation of Marc Andreesen's watch/later lists where every email is either ignored, replied to or scheduled to be reviewed later.
- Learn the important Gmail keyboard shortcuts. When you're writing a reply, press tab then return to send. Compose (c), open (o), reply (r), archive (e) and label (l) will take you a very long way. Once you've habitualized those, you may also get some mileage out of select (x), previous (j), next (k), forward (f) go to inbox (g then i) and go to search box (/).
- Turn on a few useful Gmail labs features to speed up your workflow. The three most important are Background Send, Auto-advance and Send & Archive. Each is individually useful, but the three together provide a graceful Inbox Zero workflow: write your reply then tab-enter to send in the background, archive the original and immediately open the next thing to respond to. Auto-advance also helps while working through your "review" list as it knows to only advance through appropriately labeled messages.
- If you find yourself in the middle of a long multi-person email chain, you must either be the person to end the conversation, or totally disengage from it (setting to "review" then muting works).
- Avoid "reply to all", if you can. Invariably, one of the many recipients will feel compelled to reply, creating more work for you when they do.
- Avoid email subscriptions such as newsletters and daily deals. These emails are designed to have you click away from the inbox that you are trying to empty. If an email comes from a [email protected] email address, it's a sign that you should unsubscribe. When considering whether to unsubscribe from seemingly useful emails such as Google Groups digests, ask yourself "how much would I pay to receive these?" If the answer is near zero then unsubscribe.
- If you work allows it, only check your email at pre-scheduled times in the day. We're currently striving for morning, noon and night but haven't quite conquered this one yet. Like with many other addictions, the variable ratio reinforcement schedule of checking email results in adverse operant conditioning. The first step is to stop yourself from indulging in unscheduled "quick hits" during the day.
- Pick a good text editor and stick to it long enough to master it. For non-programmers using Mac OS X, TextMate is simple enough to use straight away and will grow with you.
- Rebind caps to ctrl. You will find it easier to use more keyboard shortcuts that utilize ctrl and there's no need for caps.
- Try a full-screen writing app like Writeroom. Full screen writing apps are the closest that you will get to a clean sheet of paper (laptop and phone off) whilst enjoying the benefits of digital storage, search, etc.
- Use Spotlight (⌘ + space) to open applications. This will allow you to have an empty dock. Then hide the dock. You can't entirely remove it, but you can make it tiny so there's less chance of you accidentally exposing it.
- Use (even if loosely) an informative, extensible file naming system that you have internalized rather than spending time creating a folder system. Then, use Spotlight to find files fast, rather than navigating through folder trees.
- Have all content you need accessible all the time, on any machine. Storing all of your files in the cloud with Dropbox or Google Docs will enable you to work on anything whenever and wherever you feel the urge. Inspiration is perishable.
- Learn and habitualize simple keyboard navigation. A handful of small shortcuts will help you move through text at the speed of thought, for instance ⌥← and ⌥→ to move left and right one word at a time, ⌥⌫ to delete an entire word, and ^A and ^E to move to the start or end of a sentence.
- Use Divvy to control the windows in your workspace.
- Regularly use full screen apps to increase focus and as part of your productivity commencement ritual. There's usually an option in the 'View' menu of most apps in Mac OS X and it's built into Lion.
- Use a password manager like 1Password. You should not waste time recalling, and mental space keeping, a log of all of your passwords. Besides, a password manager is better at generating long, complex passwords than you.
- Once you decide that you no longer need an app, zap it with with AppZapper. Your Applications folder is a distraction in itself and unused apps can slow down your machine.
- Consider al3x's Rules for Computing Happiness, particularly those under 'Hardware' to ensure that you are using a machine that suits your needs and don't own hardware you don't need.
- Use Google Chrome. It's the fastest browser and will allow you to use some handy extensions.
- Install and use AdBlock. This is one of the easiest steps you can take toward distraction-free Web use.
- Install and use the Google Plus Bar Minus Chrome extension to hide the universal Google toolbar thing. On the rare occasion where you need to use the toolbar, you can temporarily show it by clicking the extension's icon.
- Don't read long articles through your browser. Instapaper might work for you, but my preferred workflow is using the Readability Chrome extension to send articles directly to my Kindle (for free) with ⇧⌃K. This will ensure that you actually engage with whole articles in one sitting, rather than flipping through them between other tasks, and may also have the added benefit of a more pleasant reading experience on the Kindle's e-ink screen.
- Clean out your bookmarks and keep the bookmarks bar hidden (press ⇧⌘B right now). You shouldn't need to keep bookmarks—sites you visit regularly will be easily to recall the URL for (either by you or by autocomplete in the Chrome location bar), articles can be read later (see above) and other pages you come across that merit further investigation should be scheduled as later research tasks.
- Set a useful startup page for Chrome (⌘, will bring up the Preferences pane). For me, this is RTM.
- Learn basic Chrome keyboard shortcuts. At the very least, habitualize using ⌘L to focus on the location bar, space and shift-space to move down and up a page, ⌘T to open a new tab, ⇧⌘T to open a new tab with the contents of the last closed tab (surprisingly useful) ⌘F to find, and ⌘G ⇧⌘G to navigate between search results.
- Consider using a keyboard navigation extension so that you can move around the web at the speed of thought.
- Schedule your chores, so that you can't use them as a way to procrastinate. If "clean the bathroom" is a monthly scheduled RTM task and you nonetheless find yourself contemplating it during the month, then you're likely avoiding a more important task.
- Try the Pomodoro Technique. This one's not for everybody and perhaps a last-resort hack that doesn't really help you get into the zone or achieve flow, but many people swear by it and it's good to have in your arsenal.
- Try ticking off small milestones within the time you have dedicated to a task, where the task is suited to this. For example, if you have to write 1,000 words in two hours then write 100 ten times on a piece of paper and tick the markers off as you reach them, just like you would watch the mileage tick over on a treadmill or your Pomodoros in a day.
- Use RescueTime to automatically log your productive and unproductive activities. The point is not to treat productivity as a game or to obsesses over your daily stats. Instead, just schedule a regular time (say, once a month) to look for patterns of low productivity, and problem apps and Web sites.
- Block problem Web sites. We would recommend the StayFocusd extension to block out the entire work week, but you could similarly use RescueTime's "Get Focused..." feature at directed times.
- Set non-work deadlines. Having a place to be or deadline to meet that is not related to your immediate set of work tasks can force you to compress the time allocated to those work tasks, perhaps reducing the potential damage caused by bad estimation.
- Find different people to work with. This may involve starting to collaborate with somebody who's smarter or more creative than you are, or who you know is likely to take a different approach to you. Alternatively, it could involve ceasing work with a regular collaborator such that you can try taking on the corresponding responsibility yourself.
- Divide and conquer. Large tasks sometimes present a crippling psychological barrier which can be overcome by splitting it into 10 minute constituent tasks. Better yet, by listing steps one to five, you may realize that steps two and four are unnecessary, and that the macro task is easier than you originally anticipated.
- Write a long list. What you decide to list hardly matters, just pick a topic and a large number and start writing. You'll instantly come up with the first N items. The next N will be harder, and require a fresh perspective or two. Don't stop there—force yourself to list N more and you'll be exercising creative parts of your brain that you may have let atrophy. Surprisingly, this creativity is often transferable to your original task, however distant it was to the subject of the list. James Altucher is an absolute pro.
- Engage in Structured Procrastination. This is helpful in compressing your available time for high-priority tasks to increase urgency, consolidating low-priority tasks into allocated time, working on self-deception and determining the true importance of all tasks.
- Go back over old lists or journal entries that you habitually make. For example, Ash has an RTM list for what may just be silly business or blog post ideas, as well as old journals and written reflections, that help to stimulate creative thought.
- Maintain a sacred thinking spot, like a cafe you only go to by yourself, or a tree that nobody else would think to sit under. When you're stuck, merely returning to that place can serve as stimulus to be creative again.
- Realize that people are paying less attention to you than you think. While you can't totally neglect your appearance and personal hygiene, you can afford to dial it down by around 50% (the difference between how much you think people care about you and how much they actually care about you).
- Don't stress out about things you can't change. Earthquakes, stock market movements and the weather have nothing to do with you and cannot be affected by you. Write a list of the things in your life that you do have control over, and direct your stress at them instead.
- Expel everything from now as a task, so that you don't dwell on something that can only be done later and so that you don't ever have to remember anything. Use an app on your phone, RTM's personal email address (/Settings/Info) and always have RTM open on your machine so that you can just write it down and move on with what you currently have to do.
- Use Pester so that you don't have to remember any time-sensitive tasks.
- Keep your identity small. If you maintain opinions on politics, religion or "important" social matters you end up devoting much of your life to signaling these to the friendly tribesmen and defending these from the enemy tribesmen. There is also a higher cost to consistency effects. It turns out that these days you can just neglect to have an opinion on such things, and few will care. Ditch a few burdensome aspects of your identity and not only will you find yourself with more free time and a clearer mind, you might also feel the lightness of being nothing.
- Know less, think more. In our parents' generation, it was difficult and expensive to be knowledgable. Since then, the ubiquity of the Internet has made knowledge almost trivial to obtain, yet we still teach kids by rote and revere those who can recall details of the French Revolution at dinner parties. The market correction will come, at which point those who've spent significant time internalizing wikipedia will realize that they truly are redundant. Instead of seeking knowledge, you should first convince yourself that you're good enough at finding knowledge when required, then direct the remainder of your attention to improving your thinking.
- Mindfully form habits. Generally, a habit that you consciously establish will improve your efficiency or otherwise be beneficial. In comparison, the habits you form accidentally tend to be detrimental. This includes everything from being mindful of how far you turn the tap to wash your hands, to how you respond to common criticisms.
- Always have an engrossing go-to question or challenge. It could be something of significance, such as a pressing work question, or simply an interesting mental puzzle. Use this as a substitute thought when trying to break mental habits. For instance if you were trying to quit smoking, whenever you thought of cigarettes you'd direct your mind instead to your go-to question. This is easier to do than merely "not thinking" about the habit you are trying to break.
- Own less stuff.
- Stop watching television. By not choosing the programming you habitualize a directionless approach to spending your time.
- Stop reading the news. Stay out of date on news and current affairs. Ignore sports and the economy. You can't change any of this, it is often stressful and there is no real value to being extra aware of current affairs.
- Don't answer the phone. Phones are perhaps the most disruptive devices that we still allow in our lives. Use Google Voice to have your voicemails transcribed to text and answer SMS, then batch process all missed calls/voicemails/SMS when you have a break in productivity.
- Turn off all phone notifications. Given that you're going to batch process your calls, emails and other messages you don't ever need to see that little red flashing light. This will just introduce a variable ratio reinforcement schedule and make you interruption-driven.
- Don't keep a calendar. Work only on your priorities at any given time depending on how you feel. Scheduling coffees and calls with people weeks ahead of time means that you are setting yourself up with multiple barriers or enforced breaks in flow. You might find Tungle helpful for doing this, by blocking out long periods of uninterrupted time every week, essentially leaving 'office hours' for calls with friends or introductions to new acquaintances. You can mask any potential signs of disrespect or anti-social behavior by touting the other benefits of Tungle—all of which are quite valuable—for example, it syncs with your calendars to prevent overlaps, shows the times in the viewers timezone and allows the proposer to propose multiple times.
- Quit smoking. Cigarettes give you a physical impulse to drop everything that you're doing, productive tasks included. You're deluding yourself if you think the interruptions are necessary or helpful to clear your mind—if you substituted a green tea habit you'd find yourself taking far fewer breaks.
- Drink less. You will spend less weekends in bed, have a clearer head and make better decisions about how long you stay out while on nights out. Drinking kills, makes you unproductive and doesn't make you more interesting.
- Sleep. When you are tired you don't have the energy for intense focus, the drift to less intense tasks and lose energy on them. There is nothing wrong with occasionally taking a tactical nap.
- Fully recover from illness. Working when you're sick can be demoralizing and significantly interfere with proper recovery.
- Quit sugar, then refined carbohydrates, then other insulinogenic food and drink. If you have some degree of insulin resistance, consuming highly insulinogenic foods can lead to distracting dips in blood sugar (also knows as food comas).
- Manage pain and injuries. Anything from a cuts to back pain can be significant, unpredictable interruptions and put you off for months at a time.
- Monitor the effect of caffeine on your alertness. Caffeine can be amazing way to increase focus and get things done, but it can also simply induce jitters that make you more open to distraction.
- Exercise tactically. Start you daily workout when you hit a plateau and make sure that you have a number of tasks ready for immediately after to take advantage of the energy boost and endorphin high.
- Consider switching to the Dvorak keyboard layout for faster, more comfortable typing. You should probably avoid this if you use other peoples' computers, but if you work mostly by yourself and do a lot of typing you may find it worthwhile. Plus, you'll be using the same keyboard layout as the world's fastest typist.
- Decide on and stick to a personal uniform. You wont realize until you do this how much time others spend on deciding what to wear, whether they need to buy more things and how they look today compared to other days.
- Don't eat during the day. You will need to work up to this by first adopting a low-carb, high-fat diet then experimenting with intermittent fasting. Once you can comfortably work an entire day without eating, you'll be liberated of distracting food-related thoughts, peaks and troughs of blood sugar and circadian ghrelin troughs.
Always try to cut the enemy. From The Book of Five Rings:
The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy's cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.
The previous 99 "ways to get more done" are simply tricks to help you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy's cutting sword. They are all useless unless you know your enemy and have every intention to cut him.