High Variance Productivity Advice
Despite being literally inapplicable for half the population, my post on birth control and productivity was one of my most popular Facebook posts. In that spirit, here’s a roundup of my favorite weird productivity tips that aren’t for everyone.
I chose hacks that several people rated as extremely high ROI…and that other people rated from “meh” to “absolutely awful.” Basically, this is my list of tips that I don’t think everyone should try. But since most blogs try to only give generally good advice, maybe you’ll find something new that is fantastic for you.
Attempt them with a spirit of experimentation and caution. A few wins can be worth a lot of useless experiments, but be careful about large negative impacts; try 10 experiments that each have a 10% chance of going horribly wrong, and you’ll probably have a bad experience.
No, not that kind. Antidepressants.
Obviously you should talk to your doctor about medication if you think you’re severely depressed. The more interesting edge case is whether people who don’t qualify as severely depressed should still try antidepressants.
If you score below mild on the PHQ-9, then ignore this. If you score mild or above more than a quarter of the time, consider talking to your doctor about antidepressants (even if you don’t think you’re depressed).
I think too many people hesitate to try antidepressants unless absolutely convinced they are definitely depressed. That doesn’t really make sense to me. I mean, there are a lot of problems with antidepressants in the real world and it makes sense to want to do your homework. But after you do your homework, if the expected value calculation says you’ll probably be happier and more productive, then you just discovered a magic pill that delivers utility. (To be clear, antidepressants usually don’t work this way, or else I would be lobbying GiveWell to make Universal Antidepressants Inc. their new top charity.)
Scott Alexander wrote that “There is a lot of worry that SSRIs are not much better than a placebo for people with mild to moderate depression….However, this is a completely academic debate for you, because you are not going to get placebo. Your choice is between SSRIs or nothing. Everyone everywhere agrees SSRIs are much better than nothing.”
As one anecdote, I qualified as mildly depressed 40% of the time on the PHQ-9 across six months, almost entirely because of persistent fatigue. My therapist suggested I try an antidepressant as an experiment; Rob Wiblin’s positive review of Wellbutrin for mild depression made me think the idea might not be crazy, and my doctor was on board. So, I tried a low dose of Wellbutrin. Over the three months after starting it, my average deep work time increased >10 hours a month, compared to the six months before it. To minimize ongoing effort, I have my pharmacy automatically ship the medication to my home when I’m due for a refill.
For the cost of taking one pill a day, 10 hours a month is an extremely high return on investment.
On the other hand, most antidepressants have side effects which can be much worse than their benefits. At the extreme end, a bad reaction to an antidepressant could make you suicidal. For safety, if you want to try one, have someone else who will proactively check on you and intervene if things go really, really badly—perhaps your doctor, a trusted friend, or a family member. This Mayo Clinic chart reviews the side effects of different antidepressants.
Additionally, it often takes several weeks for you to experience the benefits (or be sure of the lack thereof) and you may need to try a few drugs before finding a good fit for you, making this a potentially expensive experiment to run. You probably have about a 1 in 3 chance of the first drug solving the issue.
So, status quo or experiment with a magic pill that could go really well or really badly. And people say the Matrix is unrealistic.
For people highly motivated by social expectations, the online-coworking-meets-Pomodoro platform Focusmate.com can be a life saver.
You schedule a 50-minute pomodoro in advance and are paired with a stranger on the internet. At the appointed time, you both show up, tell each other what you’ll do, and work in silence. 50 minutes later, the bell dings and you share how it went.
Personally, I find it useful for making sure I do something at a specific time (e.g. establishing a workout habit at a particular time or getting started quickly on an aversive task). Many clients have also found it mildly useful, but a handful have found it transformative—on the order of doubling their output. Turns out that the thought of admitting you weren’t focused to a stranger can focus you like a laser.
The biggest downside is that you need to be on a video call with a stranger. Both participants usually mute themselves during the work session, but some people still find random video calls awkward to do in an office.
Given that, this is probably the cheapest experiment on this list – low time investment for information and low downside risks.
Put Your Money Where Your Goal Is
When you need to hack motivation, financial penalties are the most reliable tool I know of. For most people. For another subset of people, penalties suck. (If you’re already completing your goals without costly deadlines, then feel free to ignore this entry entirely!)
The idea is simple. Put ten, fifty, or a thousand dollars on the line if you don’t complete your goal by the deadline, and you’ll be more motivated. (I recommend you start with smaller amounts.) You can pre-commit to paying a friend, charity, or hated politician, depending on your desired motivation. Stickk.com is my favorite platform for setting up convenient commitments.
When I wanted to make my weekly planning habit 100% rock solid, I set a (very meta) penalty in Stickk to set weekly penalties. Each week, that email would pop up in my inbox on Sunday asking if I’d set my weekly goals yet. And I knew I needed to complete it or mark that I’d failed the next day. That small nudge was enough to slightly distort my in-the-moment motivation to match my reflective desires. (For more examples, Will MacAskill and Niel Bowerman describe other strategies they use to make financial penalties effective tools for them.)
The catch of this trick is that it’s hard to know from the get-go whether financial penalties will help you.
Before trying penalties, many clients report finding penalties somewhat aversive to start and/or don’t think they really need them. They usually decide it’s worth trying after all when they reflect on why they failed to finish the task without that extra motivation. After trying it, many people are won over by the fact that they actually did the task.
On the other hand, some people find this technique more similar to a sledgehammer than a nudge. They may try financial penalties and lose hundreds of dollars without making progress. This is extremely demoralizing. If you often miss important deadlines with real consequences, this is probably not the technique for you.
Before they try it, it’s hard even for me to distinguish which camp people will fall into. Since on average more people find penalties motivating, I tend to encourage people to try them. However, I suggest they try small penalties to start off with. If nothing else, it’s easy to set overly ambitious goals that are impossible to complete in time if your outside view isn’t calibrated yet.
To set good financial penalties, I recommend you:
Make sure you’re setting goals you will want to complete, since you are reducing your flexibility to change your mind later.
Relatedly, set goals in the near future to reduce the chances that circumstances will change what you had wanted to complete. To start off, don’t set goals for further in the future than a week.
Check the outside view to see whether you’re giving yourself enough time – because this deadline is real. How long did it take you to complete the last similar task?
Schedule in more time than you think you need so you have a buffer. 20% to 50% extra time is probably a good amount to start with.
In short, financial penalties are the best way I know of speeding up your work and increasing the rate at which you complete things. But some people have extremely negative, demoralizing experiences trying financial penalties, and even the people who like them still often find the deadlines somewhat stressful.
“On Fire” Admin
The idea is simple; you do whatever life admin is “on fire” and ignore the rest.
E.g. Since the government could throw you in jail if you don’t do your taxes, you do your taxes. Unless the broken towel bar in the bathroom is annoying you enough to be “on fire”, you leave it be. If you can learn not to care if your bed is made, you skip making it. If you’re okay living out of boxes after a move, maybe it’s not worth really setting up your bedroom.
I bet you’re already familiar with the general idea. “Don’t do unimportant things, duh.”
I’m suggesting pushing this one step further. Look for those things that feel like you “need to do” or “should do” them, and try not doing them. Skip a meeting or don’t reply to a few emails. Be aware that this could backfire; you might need to backtrack. Sometimes not doing something will come across as weird, and you need to decide if that matters to you.
The benefit is the time and mental energy you free up. Admin tasks can soak up a lot of time – even entire days – in what feels like productive work, yet nothing is different when the week is done. If you can batch admin tasks, great. If you can just skip doing a task without severe consequences, even better. In general, I see successful people more often skipping life admin tasks, and multiple clients have found this concept useful.
The downside is that a bunch of stuff doesn’t get done. You may be less productive if your workspace is always messy. People may be annoyed you never responded to their email. These may impose legitimate costs that are worth the time to just do the admin tasks. You may just be less happy. (This is one of those strategies I think are great...for some other people. Personally, I feel happiest knowing the small things are wrapped up nicely.) I don’t have a formula here – just a nudge to see which tasks are fine if you skip doing them.
The True Cost of Traveling
Travel is expensive. Not financially, though it can be that also. It’s expensive to your productivity.
You leave your familiar haunts and most of your habits. The travel itself is often tiring; you probably have to work in worse environments, and you may be more likely to get sick. If you’re jumping time zones, you’re usually adding jet lag and sleep deprivation. Sleeping in strange beds can take some adjustment, further worsening your sleep situation.
And that’s just while you’re traveling. When you come home, you’ve had days or weeks away from your routine. If forming a habit takes the oft-quoted six weeks, then you’re a good step towards rewriting those carefully cultivated habits.
These are all reasons I suspect when clients tell me “I was so unproductive on that trip. I thought I could get work done, but I just didn’t.” Traveling disrupts productivity, so minimizing travel can boost productivity.
The flip side here is that showing up can be valuable. In defense of travel, I expect that clients saying the above quote would say the travel was worth the cost more often than not. It’s hard to replace talking to your collaborators in person, meeting new connections at a conference, or picking someone’s brain because you caught them at happy hour. Sometimes these are significant productivity boosts in their own right. Honestly, some readers might benefit from the exact opposite advice—to be willing to go in person more often.
So I’m not saying to avoid travel entirely. You’ll need to weigh the benefit of being somewhere in person. Just make sure you’re considering the full cost of travel when you do.
A potential productivity tip for people with periods; birth control can be useful to lessen or eliminate the negative impact of periods.
I had particularly bad periods, and estimate the Nuva ring gave me about one extra productive day a month. I used to lose about half a day to cramps, and general pain led to slightly decreased productivity for about 5 days. With approval from a gynecologist, I use birth control continuously to suppress periods almost entirely, with no side effects. (I have a mild period every three months.)
The pill can be used in the same way taking a birth control pill every day, instead of taking the placebo pills to allow for a period. Hormonal IUDs sometimes suppress periods, but I hear mixed reports from people using them. I get my birth control mailed to me by Nurx, so I only need to think about it once a month.
On the other hand, many people report side effects from some forms of birth control, including worse cramps, worse periods, weight gain, and mood swings. So you might need to experiment to find one that works for you. I haven’t experienced any side effects of suppressing periods and the gynecologist thought it was fine, but I don’t think we’ve actually studied long term effects.
Abridge Prolonged Electronic Correspondence
I.e. write short emails.
The median email I send is one line long. I expect this frees up at least 10 minutes per day that would have been sucked up writing longer emails. That adds up to about 60 hours saved per year. If you handle a daily flood of email or spend 30 minutes agonizing over the wording every time you email a coworker, you might save hundreds of hours a year.
I will spend more time on important emails where I want to convey more information, but the majority of my messages seem to be just fine stated in a sentence or two. I expect that these shorter emails are often appreciated by busy recipients.
On the other hand, brevity (sometimes) trades off against social niceness. It’s easier to come off as brusque or even unfriendly without nice padding. Longer time may be worthwhile if you work in a particularly socially conscious field, or email frequently with touchy colleagues who might suck up time and energy in drama over a misperceived tone.
It might feel weird shooting off a short missive—it can take some adjustment if you’re used to penning essays. An explanation can help ease the transition. Inspired by a lovely signature I saw, I added a note to my email signature to preempt recipients thinking me curt, “My replies will often be brief. Saves us both time!”
What tips would you add to the list?