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The best motivation, productivity and anti-procrastination hacks

I have seen over the years hundreds of articles and blog posts on how to be more productive, more motivated, manage time better, and how to combat procrastination more effectively. But most of these ideas are just too obvious to work. Like, "reward yourself" or "have a positive attitude". Everybody knows that. And let's not even get into how no controlled scientific study has ever found a long-term enhancement of the quality of work as a result of any reward system.

Here is a list of the best ideas I've culled over the years on fighting procrastination, being more productive, and becoming more motivated.

Get yourself over the hump

For me, the biggest difficulty in getting things done was STARTING to get things done (see Why we avoid doing certain tasks below). How can I get myself over the block of starting to do something unpleasant, boring or painful?

Nothing really worked, until I stumbled upon the concept of thinking of your life like a video game, The Sims.

The Sims

"Being successful at The Sims is very easy. It's just like real life, except without a barrier between what you decide and what you do."

Say you want to get fit.

In the Sims, you immediately buy whatever lame fitness equipment you can afford. If you can't afford anything, go run in the park. Each day you tell your Sim to spend a spare minute exercising, and although progress is slow, you see their bars slowly inch up. Success is guaranteed.

Sometimes at my gym, the music on the sound system is some annoying hip-hop, occasionally with offensive lyrics. Some guys like hip-hop, but it doesn't help with my focus, or with zoning out while doing cardio and listening to an audio book. However, I never had the guts to break the social barrier and ask whoever was playing that music if they'd mind if we played something else.

Today for the first time, I made the ask. I didn't realize consciously what I was doing, until after the fact, but here's how it went:

  1. Identify who put on the music (one giant bodybuilder)
  2. Walk towards him with a smile on my face (giant guy can't get mad at a little guy with a smile plastered on his face)
  3. Mumble something to the effect of "Hey, how's it going... I'm listening to an audio book while I'm working out and the words get really confused with those of the hip-hip playing in the background, do you have some other workout music you like that doesn't have lyrics?"

Pretty simple, right? Except that I had stopped myself between steps 1 and 2 more times than I'd care to admit.

What went different today? I simply put myself through the motions, then one thing followed the next. I saw the guy. Started walking towards him. Started smiling when I got closer. Then he started smiling and said "Hey, how's it going"! Things were better than I thought already. I followed with mumbling my need to concentrate during the workout and proposing that we find some other workout music. It was not a problem! He said he didn't really like that Pandora station anyway because sometimes the songs got offensive, so we settled quickly on something else, then he asked what my name was, then we got to talking about muscle building routines.

TL;DR - to do something you avoid doing, think of yourself as a robot you remote control, make a plan, then put yourself through the motions. The more "lock in" there is after the first step (e.g. once I started walking towards the guy, it was much harder to pretend I was ignoring the music), the more likely you are to succeed.

Physically spend time with people who DO stuff

There are multiple reasons for this:

  1. Physical proximity improves trust and cooperation (through a variety of psychological and biological mechanisms, such as increased oxytocin production). This is one of the reasons so much innovation happens in places like the San Francisco Bay area (and Silicon Valley in particular), even though the same smart people could in theory use video conferencing to get the same (software) things done.
  2. Brainstorming, even accidental (such as during an argument), can generate new ideas you can act on.
  3. Peer pressure. If others do work, and you're among them, you're less likely to idle or waste time aimlessly.
  4. Inspiration and motivation from others. Being directly exposed to actual people who achieve things (as opposed to those you'd read about in the news), shows you that real humans can do stuff.

It's easy to try this out. Go to a coffee shop where people work away on their laptops, and see if you get more or less work done than in your "favorite" setting.

Make decisions and take action

"Right or wrong action, they take it. Either way it's always better than making no decisions and taking no action at all. As Franklin Roosevelt said:"

It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

-- from Why some people almost always are successful

Begin immediately

As soon as you've decided what is most important, get working.

-- from 15 Tips for Surviving a Task Explosion

Develop a sense of urgency

Have you noticed how accomplishments tend to happen in clusters? When you get something done, use the momentum, harness the joy of the achievement, and proceed to doing the next thing, right away. If possible, have high-BPM music in the background. If you need a break, take an active one.

Once developed, keep that sense of urgency

Taking long breaks from a project makes it hard to get back in the groove. Try to do something every (other) day.


Steve Pavlina explains timeboxing as allocating a finite amount of time for:

  • tasks where you may have perfectionist tendencies that would lead to too much time being spent on the task. Allocate between 30 minutes and 2 hours and do the most important parts of the task. The 80/20 rule (Pareto principle) says that you'll do 80% of what matters in that time.
  • unpleasant tasks. By allocating a short, finite amount of time for an unpleasant task (say 30 minutes), you're more likely to start doing it, because you know you'll end soon. Often, once you've made a dent in the task, you'll find that you continue working on it. Beginning is difficult.

Interrupt yourself when work is going well

The brain dislikes unfinished tasks and craves closure (the so-called Zeigarnik effect). So when the time comes to go to sleep or go to a meeting, do so enthusiastically, because:

  1. in the meantime your subconscious will work on the problem
  2. you'll be excited to resume in the morning / after the meeting
  3. the actual effect is that the brain remembers better interrupted tasks

This way you can kill the "maker vs. manager time" dread of interruptions! For the best effect, interrupt on a high note ("when the going is good")

I never come back to a blank page; I always finish about halfway through. To be confronted with a blank page is not very nice. But Hemingway, a great American writer, taught me the finest trick when you are doing a long book, which is, he simply said in his own words, "When you are going good, stop writing. And that means that if everything's going well and you know exactly where the end of the chapter's going to go and you know just what the people are going to do, you don't go on writing and writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, well, where am I going to go next? And you get up and you walk away and you don't want to come back because you don't know where you want to go. - Roald Dahl

Successful people do things even when they don't feel like it

I think this is a pretty huge factor. A lot of us back down when we don't want to do something, even though it may eventually bring us to a wonderful experience or goal. Successful people may not always like doing some of the things they have to do. But they do them anyway. And in the longer run that makes all the difference.

-- from Why some people almost always are successful

Successful people do the most productive thing right now

Instead of trapping themselves in doing productive but not so important tasks or projects they realize what's most important and do that. And after they're done with that, they do what's most important again. Instead of just doing a lot of things, they think and plan before they act, and try to focus as much as possible of their thoughts and actions on those few very important things.

-- from Why some people almost always are successful

Successful people do one thing at a time

Many of [the successful people] don't seem to multi-task. Some reasons for avoiding that may be that it creates internal confusion, wastes time and spreads the multi-tasker too thinly. Instead, they do one thing and focus on that until it is done. Then they do the next thing until it is done. Focusing 100% on one task at a time will get it done quicker and better.

-- from Why some people almost always are successful

See also my bookmarks on the impact of distractions and multitasking.

Specialize. Focus.

Think of a magician.

The psychology of impressiveness reveals that people are more impressed by someone who makes them ask "how did he do that?" than someone who has a sizable laundry list of standard activities. Achieving the former, fortunately, requires less time - and significantly less stress - than achieving the latter. [...] stress comes from having too many obligations pulling at your time. The principle of underscheduling prevents this situation from occurring.

-- from Cal Newport's How to Become a Zen Valedictorian: Decreasing Your Stress Without Decreasing Your Ambition

Successful people have redefined failure

Successful people tend to see failure as useful feedback. They may not like to fail, but they don't fear it - or at least they have little fear of it - and they know that if they fail they've been there before and they can start over again and succeed.

-- from Why some people almost always are successful

In the particular case of software development, it's known{{citation needed}} that rewriting from scratch a project takes an order of magnitude less time than it took in the previous attempt. Also, the code is much cleaner, because now the team already has a complete vision of the entire product before they even start writing the first line of code.

The Power of an Hour

Believe it or not, this was a lesson that I learned from playing the Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game "Final Fantasy XI." I played FFXI an average of four hours a day for three years. The game kept track of the total "playtime" I collectively spent logged in. After three years, my total playtime value amounted to over 180 days.

It's difficult to explain the significance of how I felt when I realized how much time I had invested playing a video game. "Invested" is a sly word to use for this story - because a more accurate word would be "wasted."

I wasted 180 days of my life playing this video game.

180 days!? The things I could accomplish in that much time!

If I spent that much time exercising, I would be physically fit.
If I spent that much time learning a second language, I would be fluent in it.
If I spent that much time writing, I would have written a book.
If I spent that much time doing anything constructive, I would've improved my life.

-- from The Power of an Hour

Nutritional, exercise, and physical interventions

These differ from person to person, so try various things, log the results, and try to establish correlations. Most people have coffee, but it doesn't work for me. Monster drinks do.

I've also found that lemon juice with a teaspoon of instant coffee mixed in is an arguably strange concoction, but it plugs me in. Surprisingly energizing, and get me crackin'. If it makes you twitch or gives you goosebumps, you've got the right concentration.

Something else that works, though not as well as the lemon juice + coffee combo, is Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate-covered Espresso Beans. I'd have 5-10 of those in the morning.

Many people, myself included, found that exercise makes them more focused and productive, and also slightly happier. An add-on to that is showering. I shower after exercise, but showering alone also helps me "wake up".

Earplugs also help me stay focused and "in the zone".


This is a recent discovery (Q1 2014): I've found that after attending a 2-hour comedy improv workshop, my brain stays primed for 12-24 hours to think more quickly, more creatively, be more productive, and also tackle tasks I had been putting off.

For example, I'd start writing that has been postponed for a week or more, and I won't stop for several hours. Code quality tends to be higher than normal too.

This effect is still going on as of these days (December 2018).

Criticism of productivity techniques

Rewards only work for mechanical or dumb tasks

How many times have you heard the productivity advice of rewarding yourself for getting something done? The truth (established by rigorous social science experiments) is that rewards improve productivity only for mechanical tasks or for tasks that don't require much cognitive ability. Various authors mention this as one of the most consistently reproduced finding of social sciences, and one of the most ignored. Indeed, businesses offer all sorts of incentives for high performance, but those incentive have been shown to reduce performance. See for details Daniel Pink's 2009 TED talk The Surprising Science of Motivation and Alfie Kohn's 1998 article Challenging Behaviorist Dogma: Myths About Money and Motivation.

This has been replicated over and over and over again for nearly 40 years. These contingent motivators (if you do this, then you get that) work in some circumstances, but for a lot of tasks, they actually either don't work, or often, they do harm. This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored.
-- Daniel Pink

Rewards narrow our focus, and that's why they work for mundane tasks, but for the 21st century, solutions (to the extent they even exist) are surprising, non-obvious and at the periphery ("outside the box"). Pink goes on to propose a solution, a new operating system for businesses:

It's an approach built much more around intrinsic motivation
Around the desire to do things because they matter,
because we like it,
because they're interesting,
because they're part of something important

Three elements [are required]:

Autonomy - the urge to direct our own lives
Mastery - the desire to get better and better at something that matters
Purpose - the yearning to do what we do in the service of somethig larger than our selves

Time is not fungible

Fungibility is the ability of a unit of a commodity to be equivalent to another unit of the same commodity. One brick is pretty much always equivalent to another brick of the same type. One hour is usually not as productive as any other hour. This goes directly against "The power of an hour" above. Quote from Aaron Swartz's blog "HOWTO: Be more productive":

"With all the time you spend watching TV," he tells me, "you could have written a novel by now." It's hard to disagree with the sentiment - writing a novel is undoubtedly a better use of time than watching TV - but what about the hidden assumption? Such comments imply that time is "fungible" - that time spent watching TV can just as easily be spent writing a novel. And sadly, that's just not the case.

Time has various levels of quality. [...] And it's tough to focus when you keep getting interrupted. There's also a mental component: sometimes I feel happy and motivated and ready to work on something, but other times I feel so sad and tired I can only watch TV.

If you want to be more productive then, you have to recognize this fact and deal with it. First, you have to make the best of each kind of time. And second, you have to try to make your time higher-quality.

Why we avoid doing certain tasks

Again from Aaron's blog, under the heading "Procrastination and the mental force field":

What is procrastination? To the outside observer, it looks like you're just doing something "fun" (like playing a game or reading the news) instead of doing your actual work. (This usually causes the outside observer to think you're lazy and bad.) But the real question is: what's going on inside your head?

I've spent a bunch of time trying to explore this and the best way I can describe it is that your brain puts up a sort of mental force field around a task. Ever play with two magnets? If you orient the magnets properly and try to push them towards each other, they'll repel fiercely. As you move them around, you can sort of feel out the edges of the magnetic field. And as you try to bring the magnets together, the field will push you back or off in another direction.

The mental block seems to work in the same way. It's not particularly solid or visible, but you can sort of feel it around the edges. And the more you try to go towards it the more it pushes you away. And so, not surprisingly, you end up going in another direction.

And just as you can't get two repelling magnets to sit together just by pushing real hard - they'll fling back as soon as you stop pushing - I've never been able to overcome this mental force field through sheer willpower. Instead, you have to be sneaky about it - you have to rotate a magnet.

So what causes the mental force field? There appear to be two major factors: whether the task is hard and whether it's assigned.

Aaron goes on about how to tackle hard tasks:

  • break them down into simpler pieces
  • start with something, because you'll get a better idea of where you're going, and because it's much easier to change something existing than to start from scratch.

As for assigned problems,

Assigned problems are problems you're told to work on. Numerous psychology experiments have found that when you try to "incentivize" people to do something, they're less likely to do it and do a worse job. External incentives, like rewards and punishments, kills what psychologists call your "intrinsic motivation" - your natural interest in the problem. (This is one of the most thoroughly replicated findings of social psychology - over 70 studies have found that rewards undermine interest in the task.) People's heads seem to have a deep avoidance of being told what to do.

The weird thing is that this phenomenon isn't just limited to other people - it even happens when you try to tell yourself what to do! If you say to yourself, "I should really work on X, that's the most important thing to do right now" then all of the sudden X becomes the toughest thing in the world to make yourself work on. But as soon as Y becomes the most important thing, the exact same X becomes much easier.

Create a false assignment

This presents a rather obvious solution: if you want to work on X, tell yourself to do Y. Unfortunately, it's sort of difficult to trick yourself intentionally, because you know you're doing it. So you've got to be sneaky about it.

One way is to get someone else to assign something to you. The most famous instance of this is grad students who are required to write a dissertation, a monumentally difficult task that they need to do to graduate. And so, to avoid doing this, grad students end up doing all sorts of other hard stuff.

The task has to both seem important (you have to do this to graduate!) and big (hundreds of pages of your best work!) but not actually be so important that putting it off is going to be a disaster.

Don't assign problems to yourself

It's very tempting to say "alright, I need to put all this aside, hunker down and finish this essay". Even worse is to try to bribe yourself into doing something, like saying "alright, if I just finish this essay then I'll go and eat some candy". But the absolute worst of all is to get someone else to try to force you to do something.

Make things fun

Hard work isn't supposed to be pleasant, we're told. But in fact it's probably the most enjoyable thing I do. Not only does a tough problem completely absorb you while you're trying to solve it, but afterwards you feel wonderful having accomplished something so serious.

So the secret to getting yourself to do something is not to convince yourself you have to do it, but to convince yourself that it's fun. And if it isn't, then you need to make it fun.

Be realistic about how many hours you can work

Notice how many hours you can work per week, without getting burned out (crunch mode doesn't work). Then set your target hours at a little below that X, and make sure you don't exceed it most weeks. That will leave time for other things in life (friends, family, exercise, fun etc.) and it's a pace you can sustain indefinitely.

Be realistic about unproductive work hours

Those X hours per week will include work time without much output (the 80/20 rule will apply to meetings, email etc.). however, you must figure those hours in. Interestingly, many geniuses have reported that they only do highly-focused work for about four hours per day. If you internalize that you can only do high-quality work for 4 hours a day, that can be quite liberating:

  • you can play first and work later, without guilt, as long as you've blocked 4 hours
  • if you've worked for 4 hours and start seeing diminishing returns, it's OK to stop for the day, not just take a break

Do the math

Try to get an idea about how much work you can do on the average over a week or month: how many emails you can answer, how much code you can write, or whatever the task is that you're involved in. When you see that the amount of work times your speed simply exceeds X, the number of hours you've dedicated to working, you must cut back on tasks. Saying "No" may be hard and is a separate problem, but you must do this. Identify the value of tasks (again, use the 80/20 rule) and cut those of lowest value. Your work capacity is finite, and so is your life (for the medium-term future, at least).