Five Ways to Be More Productive

  1. First one! (Disclaimer many of these are not easy and none of us are perfect me included, the goal is to just try to be better)

-Don’t do work around your cell phone. Humans are awful multitaskers, all of us. The research is really clear on this (I used to think I was great at it…). When you work around your cell phone your brain is constantly going “ohh did I get a message, did people like my post ohh… let me just check” turn it off and preferably have it away from you(I lock mine in a drawer in another room and put the key in hard to reach area of another room, or just work outside and not bring it).  Just try it for one hour, put yourself into a minimalist workspace without any distractions and see how much work you get done.

2. Don’t wallow in guilt if you mess up. Often wallowing in guilt is a very self indulgent thing, you torture yourself which in a twisted way is easier than what you should do. But while you are feeling guilty you are not doing something productive, and since you don’t want to feel guilt, this often leads you to actively avoiding the thing that made you feel guilty, which is very likely to make things worse. Acknowledge your failures, but don’t think it means you are terrible if you don’t meet your expectations or miss a deadline. I know it isn’t easy, I know better than most about the temptation to take the easy way out that just makes things worse in the long run. But do your best to fight against it.

Don’t give yourself excuses either, it is a lie that you are in total control of your situation, but since it is far too easy to always find excuses for yourself it is a dangerous road. So my best advice is approach life with the idea you are in control of your fate, knowing it isn’t actually always true. Don’t excuse yourself, don’t guilt yourself, instead try to be better every day, try to do better every day, the question you should always ask is, “how can I avoid making the same mistakes in the future”. You are human, you will make mistakes, try to improve from them rather than get sucked into a vicious cycle of guilt and procrastination.


3. Take breaks, make sure it is a break you can do in short spurts, like take a walk(I mostly play violin). While it might sound like a good idea to play a game or watch a video, these too often turn from short breaks to… very long ones. When you relax try to relax efficiently, try to block off plenty of time to do something you genuinely enjoy. If you try to just work every day your productivity will fall overtime, and you will likely seek little guilty enjoyments that don’t actually leave you feeling very relaxed. The key to being productive is efficient work, efficient play.

Empirical work on the matter is very surprising, overwork and sleep deprivation actually cause working too much to have negative marginal returns in the long run. This is sometimes hard because in the short run they usually have positive returns, but doing it over and over makes the total amount you produce less. One experiment in construction found that over the course of a long time frame crews that worked 40 hours a week out produced their 50 and 60 hour counterparts. This is because working 25% extra hours a week doesn’t add if the per hour productivity falls by 33%. The reason Henry Ford started the 5 day forty hour workweek was not because he was “nice” but instead internal experimentation showed that in the long run it led to the highest per week output, it should be noted that taking other jobs was strictly forbidden. Software firms that put their employees under permanent crunch usually fair badly, as any gain in work is destroyed by lower per hour productivity and more mistakes. Other research shows many people take too few breaks to maximize their total productivity. I am guilty of violating this all the time, but just keep it in mind.

4. Focus on efficiency. How often have you waited until the last minute, wasting your time beforehand for hours or even days trying to avoid the anxiety of not doing your work, only to bang it out quickly the night before? Guess what that means? You could have saved yourself all that anxiety and focused on things you really wanted to do. Try to do this a few times and then try to remember just how much better it feels next time you are stuck in the cycle. Alternatively you can also just be honest with yourself about what you will realistically do and create a plan from that so you can keep the project in the back of your mind and genuinely enjoy your downtime.

Be honest! How many times have you told yourself I am going to do *insert giant list* and everyday do *big list* and then maybe you do a little and give up? Be honest with yourselves! It is the only path to freedom. Making lofty goals that you can’t actually complete just makes things worse, try chunking things into small manageable tasks instead of standing at the foot of a giant task mountain. (If I really want to do something hard, I write myself binding contracts, but since I treat these so seriously I will only write hard but possible things, if I created one I could not fulfill it would make these contracts lose their power). Spending time “working” when you are not accomplishing something is pointless, always try to work on keep your per hour efficiency in mind.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others, compare yourself to who you were yesterday. You are not in control of other people, you are not other people, all you have control over is you, don’t worry about being the best, there is one spot for that, but every single person can make significant improvements. Taking this at heart and always trying to improve and always trying to be your best will allow you to be a much better version of yourself than if you just constantly compare yourself to others. The students I have that do the best aren’t even the ones that act with the goal of trying to be the best, but instead the ones that are genuinely interested.

Another reason why you shouldn’t compare yourself with others is that we are not the same. Each person has their own unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. Many of our differences can be changed to some extent and others can’t. The trick is working on the parts of yourself you can change and finding ways of dealing with the problems that stem from those things that you cannot (for instance I am very forgetful so I build a lot of redundancy into my life). The other trick is figuring out what you really want, just keep in mind you don’t have to want to the same things as everyone else, try to set goals and aim for things that work well with your talents and special preferences.

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