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Extremely basic productivity advice

Here’s some advice, roughly divided into three parts:

  • Do the right things
  • You have to actually do them
  • There are also other things

Do the right things

Sam Altman’s advice on focus is foundationally, incredibly good because it’s so often overlooked.

“Almost everyone I’ve ever met would be well-served by spending more time thinking about what to focus on. It is much more important to work on the right thing than it is to work many hours. Most people waste most of their time on stuff that doesn’t matter.”

In one of my early internships, I worked for a bit with a team that spent months working on a deliverable that didn’t serve the client’s interests one bit and had nothing to do with the client’s requirements. If you had set every single document in the OneDrive folder on fire, nothing would have changed. Someone high up had suggested that the deliverable was a good idea but figuring out why it wasn’t a good idea required that you stare at a wall for four hours and really think about what the client’s objectives were. Very few people stare at walls for four hours. Staring at walls (or at client requirements) and thinking very hard about what to do is an immense advantage.

The reason most people don’t do this is either (a) because they spend their time moving from document to document and completing tasks instead of exercising some autonomy; (b) they feel like it would be precocious and like, bad form, to tell someone that you’ve read the client requirements and that they haven’t. This means that you will progress down a path of pig-headed path dependency that should eventually lead to someone, somewhere losing the mandate of heaven.

Don’t do this. Think very hard about each project and each action. Document those thoughts relentlessly. And if possible, ask people when you don’t understand why you’re doing something. It’s entirely possible they’re making it up. In fact, they’re probably all making it up, except for the select few who join the cult of “I care enough to stare at a wall”.

You have to actually do them

I am one of those people who finds it difficult to work unless I’ve really decided to. And I find it incredibly difficult to make progress on something unless I’ve really invested effort into understanding it. This makes distractions and really, anything that prevents focused work anathema.

For the wrong things (i.e. stuff that you have decided are stupid and unnecessary, but that you have to actually do), I recommend working as late as practicable and using panic to get things done.

Treat your brain like a dog you just got (Jerry Seinfeld)

Jerry Seinfeld’s advice, as a general rule, is pretty great. I recommend this conversation with Tim Ferriss, as well as this one with Bob Roth on transcendental meditation. Here are a few excerpts, edited for readability:

“It’s like you’ve got to treat your brain like a dog you just got. The mind is infinite in wisdom. The brain is a stupid, little dog that is easily trained. Do not confuse the mind with the brain. The brain is so easy to master. You just have to confine it. You confine it. And it’s done through repetition and systematization.” - Jerry Seinfeld

Create a work session

She’s struggling, “I can’t write. I keep putting it off.” So I explain to her my basic system, which you already talked about at the top of the show, which is, if you’re going to write, make yourself a writing session. What’s the writing session? I’m going to work on this problem. Well, how long are you going to work on it? Don’t just sit down with an open-ended, “I’m going to work on this problem.” That’s a ridiculous torture to put on a human being’s head.

“When is the workout over?” “It’s going to be an hour.” “Okay.” Or “You can’t take that? Let’s do 30 minutes.” “Okay, great.” Now we’re getting somewhere. “I can do 30.”

Block distractions (see benkuhnpatio11)

No notifications, browsing, or comms in the morning. I’ve begun waking up in the morning, going through a quick morning routine, and not using my phone or turning on any notifications for about two to three hours. This means no email, no calls, no Slack, no browsing the internet, and no binge-rereading patio11 posts. No communication with the outside world of any kind. I start by doing some writing or finishing up a pressing deliverable. I try my best not to do research either because I’m very prone to rabbit holes.

I use ColdTurkey to block distracting websites ever since the moment I realized that I was able to do the Cmd+T, twitter dot com, keyboard-shortcut for new tweet routine from muscle memory in under three seconds. And that I was doing it many, many times every hour. I figured out that I was doing it many times an hour with RescueTime.

Oh, and this is far more effective than deleting Instagram or Twitter in a fit of self-restraint. There are no fits of self-restraint. There is self-restraint, and then there are fits and whims and fancies. Uninstall your social apps if you make a considered, reasoned decision to leave because you no longer obtain value from the platforms. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter when you use them as long as you don’t use them during a focused work session.

While you’re at it, get rid of your fancy note-taking apps. You probably don’t need them. Use Apple Notes/Google Keep + Docs or something else that’s not a hassle and is well-integrated into your general ecosystem.

There Are Also Other Things

There are various other things you can do, such as exercise, eating healthy, and sleeping that are very useful to happiness, longevity, and just general existence. I will update this post if/when I start doing them.