Productivity A-Z = a combination that contains all of my productivity-related notes in one juicy long-form post.
1. It’s Not About Being Lazy
By average standards, I like to believe that I use computers really fast, but I am sometimes frustrated about how slow I believe I use them.
My ideal scenario would be getting to a point where I can think about something, anything, and only be awaiting for that information to come, fire up and invade my synapses.
And maybe humanity’s next step towards such a contraption is the large-scale mass distribution of Smart AI glasses. Definitely waiting for that day to come. And maybe, a few years later, who knows? The Singularity? > The goal is to minimize the time between thinking of action, and the computer will do the rest. This is why I love learning and using shortcuts.
Every time I install a new piece of software, a new app on my phone, or my tablet, I am swiftly jumping to their shortcuts section to see if these are feasible. If I end up using the app, even better!
Think about the endless minutes you spent hovering your mouse over and clicking that “+” sign in your web browser when you could have simply used CTRL/CMD+T.
Or you trying to send a quick location pin to a friend, slowly navigating through the ins and outs of Maps when you could have simply used the 3D Touch shortcut.
Bill Gates once said that he would always “hire a lazy person to do a difficult job” at Microsoft. Why? “Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”
What we call “a lazy person” is someone who, at some point, was under time pressure and figured out that there’s a shortcut she or he can use to peel an egg faster. Or clean the dishes. Or do the laundry. All these lowkey activities that people are doing for ages are oftentimes hard to change as the method is well-established and standardized for generations.
It is the default, and only a few bothered to explore a better way to do it, a quicker way.
We need to start thinking about exploring the shortcuts of life. Compression progress.
I agree that we might need deep mastery in our industries to become innovators, but we also need higher-order thinking and the ability to leverage shortcuts and platforms to do everything else. In a pre-technology era, people with abstract knowledge were extremely valued. But in the age of smartphones and Wikipedia, does it matter that you don’t know offhand the name of the second-largest city in Angola? What’s more important today is knowing how to use platforms to retrieve the information you need, whether it’s the capital of Angola or the result of 87,988 divided by 5.4. All while leveraging shortcuts along the way and mixing everything into a sparkling cocktail of useful information flow. I do believe this does not make you stupid, but truly useful on a macro scale.
On changing our defaults
Eliminating the friction from a system is an artistic joy. My pupils become dilated when I can make something run just a little bit faster or whenever I removed some annoying human effort from a process, either physical or digital.
Progress is oftentimes linked to an attitude shift. It’s about competing to be innovative and not always right. It’s about looking at age-old processes, activities, and tasks and then ask ourselves: Why do I do it this way?
Hard Work Can Be A Lottery Ticket
I believe there are endless ways to think smarter and be more efficient, but there’s no substitute for hard work. The problem is that sometimes hard work might be and feel like a lottery ticket. You throw all your brains and resources into a project, getting deep into it and being absorbed by its webs, only to find out that you miscalculated one tiny detail, which leads to the breakdown of the entire castle. What I like doing instead is throwing a lot of things against the wall and seeing what sticks. I am not putting all my hard thinking into 5 or 7 random numbers, trying to assign meaning to each and then deliver my ticket. I am instead buying lots of tickets filled with randomness. This way I can narrow down my feedback loop and increasing the rate of my progress by doing a lot of mistakes in a very short time frame.
Shortcuts are like habits. It takes some time to add them to your routine, but once those get in, you will never look at life the same. We need to start thinking about exploring the shortcuts of life just a little bit more. And sure we might be ending up in the same place, but I already have explored 1000 different places already.
2. How to get faster at doing things
Here’s my personal and proven approach on how to get faster at doing things in a digital era. In no particular order, here we go:
- If something crosses your mind while you are working or studying, especially a negative bugging piece of thought, just make a quick note of that something and record it in a notebook. Just get it out of your system!
- Install Papier (Chrome/Brave) or Board (Firefox) — if you want your note-taking to be digital. You can also do a brain dump on Google Keep, Bear Notes, Notion, Roam Research, Obsidian, Evernote etc.
- Experiment with the 30 + 5 method — sprint hard for 30 minutes and then, take a 5-minute break (go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, do a stretch, drink water, read an article, do 10 push-ups, clean your desk, etc.).
- Learn to scan read — titles, intros & outros, summaries, blurbs, etc. so that you can decide if it warrants a full read.
- Learn keyboard shortcuts both for your computer (Mac/Windows/Linux) and browser (Chrome, Firefox).
- Learn to type faster — double your typing speed, double your output. Assuming you are typing the right stuff. (via Noah Kagan).
- Make your PC/Mac machine as fast as possible so there is no dead time waiting for things to load.
- Install Chrome/Firefox plugins: Pocket, LastPass, Pablo, AdBlock, Tab Scissors, Sexy Undo Close, Buffer, YSlow, Clipboard History, OneTab, Awesome Screenshot, YouTube Playback Speed Controller
- Bookmark your main websites and remove their names.
- Make use of sharing functions and shortcuts when using Outlook, Google Docs, Google Spreadsheets, Dropbox, Google Drive.
- Google Docs useful shortcuts: doc.new | sheets.new | deck.new | site.new | form.new
- Install Alfred (Mac) or Launchy (Windows). Tweak them up!
- Speed up your mouse/touchpad.
- Use a Pomodoro Timer. I have mine as a Chrome extension.
- Automate some parts of your writing process.
- Use TextExpander for MAC or TextExpander for Windows.
- Templetize email responses. One of my folders contains email templates for different scenarios.
- Always single task!
- Remember: the conscious mind has a processing capacity of 120 bits per second. It’s hard for us to understand two people talking at the same time. Don’t get cocky.
- Use automation software such as IFTT and Buffer (for Social Media).
- Always ask this question: What would this look like if it were easy? (borrowed from Tim Ferriss).
- Give yourself 5 minutes to do a morning e-mail check, if you really have to. Do it fast.
- Schedule everything so you won’t forget it. Adjust along the way.
- Create a pattern with your Pomodoros.
- Start small with a cycle of 2–3 Pomodoros followed by a 10–15-minute break.
- Use gamification for daily value-adding tasks — e.g. 1000 written words gets you X reward. Switch the rewards. I have also created a video on why video games might be the future of education.
- Have a distraction-free office/desk.
- Keep an organized junk drawer for keys, duct tape, lantern, batteries etc.
- Have some sort of a stress ball. Play with it in your Pomodoro break. Ideas Doctor Gregory House has one too!
- Work without your laptop charger as it will make you get things done quicker.
- Invest in a big screen monitor. Easier to split your screen when needed.
- Use music to get yourself in the zone. I prefer something without lyrics like the classics or some chillstep mixes. Here’s one I like.
- Jog everywhere you go. Stop walking.
- Take a fast cold shower. I prefer doing it in the morning. It can also be a huge reset button for your afternoon!
- Set an alarm clock.
- Go to bed at the same time every night.
- Wake up at the same time every morning. Try getting to sleep at the same time.
- Get up at your fixed time the next morning even if you have to stay late at night — the consistency of your cycles is more important than the amount of sleep.
- Sleep in a cool, darkroom. Preferably somewhere around 19 degrees Celsius.
- Cover your windows to keep out the light.
- Stretch in the morning.
Drink (and eat) up!
- green tea
- black coffee
- mushroom coffee
- camomile tea (if you feel the need to calm your nerves)
- dark chocolate
Experiment with intermittent fasting.
This is not only for the health benefits but for the time you are going to save as well!
Things will add up. A minute here. An hour there. You will adjust.
A good night’s sleep can lead to a good waking up experience which can lead to a calm mind which can lead to a good workout which can lead to a good and productive workday which can lead to a good day which can lead to a happy life?
3. Optimizing Your Commute
This is how my commute can look like. I will split this into multiple categories so that you can play around. I’m always shifting and spinning my plates, always adapting. And you should do it too! Here we go!
Video-based post here.
Pre-arrival office work
- E-mail skimming and prioritizing
- Meetings check-up and preparation. You can either do that in your head or by checking your notes.
- Code/documents/presentations review
- The commute is the best time to update yourself on current affairs related to your profession. There are specified sites that provide information related to a specific industry like in shorts. Another form of being updated is checking the emails in your inbox before you step into your workplace.
- Have a list of articles ready to read
- Use a tool like Pocket to bookmark and save interesting pieces and content that you would like to process, read later, or archive; This way, you’ll avoid mindless scrolling and can fully take advantage of your reading time.
- Download Kindle App and populate it with a lot of books, or just bring with you physical books. I prefer the app because it can store many books and I have this habit of reading 2–5 books simultaneously.
- Listen to news, audiobooks, or podcasts. This is a better use of commute time. You can also listen while you’re buying groceries, running errands, cleaning, or waiting in line. The libraries in my pocket include Audible, OverDrive, Downpour, Scribd and Hoopla Digital, Librivox.
- Have a set of relevant podcasts ready. Don’t just randomly listen to podcasts on your commute. Instead, select them in advance and download them. This way, you can be sure you will make the most out of your listening time and avoid connection problems on the train.
- Organizing notes you have on your phone
- Organize/Delete/Scramble apps you haven’t used in a while
- Ask/answer questions on Quora
- Learn/experiment with a language
- music listening
- allowing your mind to wonder
- staring into the abyss
And even if you are stuck in traffic/commute, there are a number of exercises that you can do in that window.
Neck exercise — rotate your neck gently clockwise and counterclockwise a few times. Then push back onto the headrest, hold for a few seconds, and repeat again a couple of times.
Abdominal/Breathing exercises — take a deep breath. Then contract the stomach slowly and exhale. Hold the pose for a few seconds while taking light breaths. Then repeat.
Butt exercise — sit up straight and clench your butt muscles. Lift up from your seat for an inch or two centimeters in the clenching form, hold for a few seconds, relax, and then repeat the movement.
Have a running mental task list of what I call ‘1-min tasks’.
Some examples below:
- make that quick phone call to reserve a table
- quickly cancel a subscription
- unsubscribe from a few useless newsletters
- reply to messages (this is probably a default by now)
If you are the kind of person who waits for a pile of messages to form and then respond in batches to save time.
Solve some puzzles such as Sudoku or the Rubik Cube, puzzles help you to sharp your brain muscle.
If you’re on the train, bring with you a little notebook to write. I just love the feeling of writing while being in motion, watching things passing through windows
Just think and observe your own thinking pattern, this can be very interesting.
By listening to your own thoughts and emotions, you get to know a lot about yourself. The more you pay attention, the better you understand how your mind works, the more likely you’re able to break the pattern and be more creative.
I’m not going to describe the benefits of meditation. Pretty much well-known by now. There’s even a heavy multi-million dollar industry built around mindfulness. And this is why I need to take everything with a grain of salt. Do your own research.
I got my idea while I was waiting for the chiu-chiu subway train one morning.
I was sitting on a bench, phone glued to my hand, checking pockets, thinking about rockets, reading some random stories, skimming Reddit, Quora, a couple of emails + the almighty Spotify smooth jazz daily mix running through my ears and brains.
My present moment was bombarded by stimuli.
I wouldn’t say that anxiety was coming to get me, but there was this feeling of tightness and unproductive alertness. Add a low attention span in the mix, and this is how I thought my day is going to be like: filled with fear of missing out and not being up to date with what’s happening on the planet.
I suddenly stopped and opened Oak — the meditation app I use from time to time at home — and hit play on a 5-minute session of fire-cracking ambient noise session.I wasn’t actually trying to meditate.
I was not paying attention to my breath, or trying to replicate a lotus position I saw in some video online. I was simply sitting there. My end goal was to get out of the tornado, the bombardment.
And then it hit.
The breath started to self-calibrate. I was feeling the low heart rate and some sort of balance, like bricks aligned on the same level when building a foundation for a massive architectural piece. My body started to self-regulate. People were moving at a slower pace and, I could not hear the noise generated by the overall subway surroundings.
One of my biggest flaws is my desire to always stay connected. Every moment needs to be categorized as productive, even though it might not be and I am just fooling myself. And this is why I use the app — for the ability to track and still see myself as a productivity guru. I tried that at home, and it did not stick. This is why I might try this when I am commuting as there is still that dead time in my hands.
So the workaround is to fit my meditation practice during my commute — as I am dealing with dead time already.
Crowded places are the best because I cannot concentrate on my mass unproductive multitasking. But I find it easy to just sit and observe.
Again, I call it meditation, but it’s more of a disconnection. I sit and stare at people and my surroundings, and I track that time just to have a mental model of something productive and fill my unsustained need with a decent practice that can support my overall well-being.
4. Saying no to 1000 things every day: Via Negativa
Back in 1501, when Michelangelo was asked by the grand pope master what was the secret to his statue of David work of genius, Mike replied that he is simply removing everything that is not David.
And this is just a simple permutation of the overall principle which runs under the name of Via Negativa — essentially a phrase used to describe what God is by focusing on describing what HE is not!
And then we adjusted and expanded this notion and its meaning by thinking about it as a way of improving one’s life by removing the unessential. And you can start by simply removing the pepperoni on your pizza, right? And then taking a look at your habits as well. And only then look at the people as keeping one’s distance from an ignorant person is equivalent to keeping company with a wise man.
Because there’s a word on the street that if you want to improve one’s life, you should start adding tons of new things in. The new year/new me cliché where people usually outline that they want to quit smoking, go to the gym, or read more books?
And combining this with the Paradox of Choice — where more options can potentially lead to bad decisions and a lower satisfaction rate — your new year/new me goals will eventually collapse.
But what about, say, instead of reading more books — you try reading no books at all? Or simply revisiting the books you already devoured.
Eliminating routines where you are not making any progress.
Or cleaning up that small pile of dust sitting under your desk for a few months?
Addition through subtraction
I suppose it’s also about avoiding being trapped in the first place.
Our mind is usually biased towards progress through positive action. The PLUS (+) and the MINUS (-) you see in school, in the grading system. The games we play and the gamification in our workflow. And we don’t usually think about the bad things that didn’t happen simply because the mistakes were avoided in the first place, either by luck or chance or actual purpose.
It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.
— Charlie Munger
And I agree that sometimes, the universe aims for balance and attempts to remove the unessential from our life just to make us stronger. But we are stubborn enough to keep dumping more things in. I think that removing the unessential is a good exercise overall.
5. How I preserve my sanity
A few months ago I started thinking about some ways to preserve my mental sanity. My thinking patterns are somehow random, and this is the process I use to ease the shackles of my mind. The core fluctuates around practicing moderation and seeking balance, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.
What is wrong with me right now?
This question triggers a short checklist that goes deep down through my mental apparatus at a very primal monkey brain level. Am I in physical pain? That’s a NO. This means that I am imagining and living things and situations which are not real. My reality is this physical moment. And is it that bad? I don’t think so. I’ve got this delightful day, some nice food and nice people. Nice work. And so what if the mental agony is still there? The above friendly reminder is a noble companion.
If a particular person doesn’t reinvigorate my fried chicken brain and make me feel better, I usually pull back and retreat my troops. I don’t necessarily blacklist them, but I usually give no explanation. No compromise. No favors. Done& gone.
I try doing that for food, drinks, situations. Everything I’m doing that isn’t good for me. But this can be a vicious circle, and that’s because some nasty situations you will find yourself in can bring joy and happiness in the end.
But doing this provided me a huge chunk of time where I can wrangle around with complex problems and come up with my own answers.
Empty time leaves room for possibility.
The empty space created where I am no longer chasing distractions helped me learn what I’m really doing with my time and life. I can then refill this with cool new actions and people. Untangling the mental mess helps me see the horizon. See? It’s still about finding balance. Say no to anything less than great.**
Skating through the mundane
There are days when you simply do not feel like yourself. Tired, overwhelmed, bored — there plenty of states you can go through.
My approach might sound silly, but I find it unusually effective — I go and take care of the mundane. I wash the dishes, clean my plates, rearrange the furniture, write some thoughts in my micro-journal, clear up the clutter on my desk, fill my water bottle, take some vitamins, clear up my browser history, write up something in Evernote, sort it out, put my phone on airplane mode, go out for a jog. When you can’t get out of your mind, get into your body. Go out and move.
Going through the daily motions helps my thinking process. I can then look around and see a clean house, paid bills, good food, and normal life. Most people don’t have that. The physical reality keeps the reality of my mind on point. It’s about what is real versus what I am imagining.
A Macro-Level Thinking Approach
Usually, if I’m about to lose it, there are crystal clear signs. I may start feeling out of touch with reality, become incredibly worried with the thought that I don’t actually exist, or have a glazed look in my eyes, seeing a foggy version of the world I can’t seem to focus on. There’s this mind-to-world fusion happening right through my eyes. I then calm and remind myself of what I know for sure and what is likely. Whenever this happens, I try centering my gaze on one object and notice all the parts and details, working my way through the rest of the scene around me, just to make sure I’m still there and haven’t started disappearing. It’s easy to get lost in your own imagination and inner mind if you do not feel fully awake.
At a Macro-Cosmic level maybe nothing will matter, but we do not live our day-to-day life at that level. We are here, probably reading this blog post on the toilet.
6. Reimagining your free time: The Philosophy of Slack
In 2020, I’ve learned about the tiny, often neglected concept of Slack.
And even though this might come in as a little abstract, I’ll try to define how I see it by filtering what I’ve read and understood.
Slack. The absence of binding constraints on behavior.
Slack is not jumping into the wagon when everyone else is jumping.
Slack is the spare change you have and decide to give it to a homeless person who might really need it.
Slack means you can relax. It’s tomorrow’s problem.
Slack is when you allow yourself to make mistakes. You can chill. The world is not going to end. You will still have your life tomorrow and, simply remembering that you are fortunate enough to go back home, crush on your bed at night is and will be your eternal reward. You can train, you can sprint, you can rest, you can reassess.
Slack means you can still explore without being hasty, without desperation, need, and greed. You are okay with losing some as deep down you know that you are going to gain some.
Slack is when you are chilling with your friends without necessarily having to discuss something that you and only you consider productive. Slack is trading life’s marginal error for something you enjoy.
Slack is the hoodie you put on when you are at home.
Or when quickly going out on a cozy Saturday to buy a pack of cigarettes and you end up with a random friend puffing one on the sidewalk.
Slack is refusing to be bound by constraints, views, and lifestyles. > Slack is allowing yourself to embrace extremes without being vulgar and refining your seamlessness. You can still be decent, meet deadlines, be professional. Enjoying two opposite genres of music.
You are a slacker if you choose not to deploy your maximum effort. But you still have that room only you know about, that space to push the pedal if you want to. But you don’t push that pedal. You slack off. You go out and drink your coffee, have a nice talk. Society asks you to do things more than ever. You are primed to opening doors. You need to see what is behind every single door. Every morning, every day, every night.
You need to keep yourself up to date. You need to prove you are not like them while still being on the same boat. Slack is ditching all of that and going into the woods. Slack is not knowing what the others are doing but also dissecting their every move on a macro scale.
The Academia does not allow room for slack. School teaches us that we need to stay on a career path, we need to work, we need to fear failure, we need to be serious. You need to have that piece of paper, that credential. A typo is yet one more brick I can use to discombobulate you when analyzing your well-crafted resume and interviewing you like the open book you pretend to be.
If you are not going to protect your Slack, you are going to lose it. Remember: if you have free time, someone will find something for you to do. So, protect your Slack. Stop trying to show people the person that you want to be. Otherwise, you’re bound. You are in chains. You are on a train you will never escape from.
You need to post everything, you need to update everyone. You are running out of Slack. Your cash is already planned, you already know what you want to do, where you want to go. And, in life, we are primed to trade. But we can control what we are trading. I can control how I feel, and I can choose to lose some time on my subway ride back home, being connected to the outside world and simply listening, out of my cocoon-like car where I am usually in traffic and waiting for the light to turn green while also catching up with my social media feed. My slack is productive.
If you feel like you are unproductive right now, it’s okay. If you are studying or trying to finish up a project and you have that feeling of restlessness going, it’s alright. Do not get angry or hasty, but instead pack your bag, go home, take a shower, drink your tea, and play your game. Slack allows you to do it. Be willing to let it go. The day will still be yours tomorrow.