This productivity advice won't help you but you should read it anyway

Venkatesh Rao published https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2015/12/01/can-you-hear-me-now/ back when I was 18 and I’ve been thinking about that post ever since.

Pre-amble

  • by my nature, I’m very low consciousness + high energy (I probably have ADHD) and over the years have become obsessed with writing all non-trivial thoughts/ideas down, with the result being that I write tens of thousands of words in notes every year (just in Jan-May 2020 I wrote >30,000 words in productivity notes), so I try a ton of productivity tricks, write all of them down and plan to write a post based on these notes eventually, which gives me additional motivation to document everything carefully (my first productivity post got 614 points on HN 9 months ago and had a piece in Lifehacker written based on it). So,

My system

  • in early 2020 I decided to try to write down in a google sheet how well every 30 minutes of my day went from 1 to 5 because I felt that even though I was working the entire day, a lot of it was not very focused work

  • I noticed that often when I was “fully focused” and gave myself a “5”, I was only working like 15 minutes out of 30 because I had to do chores, talk to my wife, etc. and that even when I have a day full of 5s I have really no idea how much I worked

  • I decided to record literally every minute of fully focused work. Time tracking apps can’t see whether I have a text editor open and am focused or going to the bathroom so I ruled them out and created a fancier google sheet.

  • eventually I ended up having a custom script beep on my phone every minute and upon hearing this script I had a mouse macros that switched my current window to the google sheet and entered 1 or 0 for the last minute, depending on whether I was fully focused on work. I was literally inputting ones and zeros into that sheet every minute for an entire day for several weeks

  • everyone I told about this idea told me that this sounds incredibly annoying and distracting. I assured them that it was totally fine, I got used to it and almost didn’t notice these beeps, and when I had to just walk around and think about stuff I allowed myself to input focus minutes later, etc. etc.

  • a few weeks later I realized that these beeps were indeed distracting and eventually I developed sort of an automatic muscle memory that pressed the macros so quickly that I was constantly forgetting whether I inputted 1/0 and spent considerable time just staring at the sheet making sure all focus minutes are entered correctly

  • eventually I switched to a slightly different strategy. I inputted “30” at the beginning of every 30 minute block of work and instead of adding ones and zeros, subtracted from “30” whenever I realized that I was not fully focused in the minute preceding the beep

  • eventually I turned off the beeps and realized that I got really good at anticipating that I will have to subtract focus minutes when I get distracted, meaning that I essentially started to automatically notice even the slightest distractions while working and learned to quickly cut them off (because when I had beeps on, my rule was that if the distracting thought was cut off as soon as possible, then when I hear the beep I could still record this as a fully focused minute and I really cared about focus minutes )

  • now this is pretty close to my current system. In fact, as I’m writing this post, I have that sheet open in a different window and am ready to subtract focus minutes (fortunately, I enjoy writing this, have sort of ended flow, and have not yet lost a single minute). I also usually have 3 monitors when I work, so I have that google sheet always open on the second monitor, constantly reminding me to update the focus minutes and letting me to occasionally note how much I worked today

  • this system works absolute wonders. I also spent a lot of time making sure I actually care about this sheet and about focus minutes (which took a ton of effort) and the combination of really caring about them + usually being able to notice whenever I get distracted means I’m fully focused on work like 80% of dirty working time

Productively growing apart

  • now here’s a problem: suppose I try to suggest this productivity system to someone else. How promising is that? Well, I actually tried suggesting it to a couple of friends and none of them found it useful. None cared about a random google sheet enough and none were able to actually input focus minutes on the go

  • it seems to me that now there’s a chasm between me and everyone else. These idiosyncratic circumstances got me to the point I am at right now and it’s pretty much impossible to get anyone else to get to this point the way I did just out of sheer curiosity driven by me coming up with an absurd idea and trying to prove to the world that it’s legit, which literally nobody now has (“oh why don’t you try to make a decision to have a script beep at you every minute for a few weeks every time you start working, it will definitely be helpful later”)

  • so now I’m at this point where (1) I think my system is very very good, (2) I suspect it can be used by other people, (3) I have no idea how to actually get people to the point where they find it useful, because my path here seems extremely non-repeatable

Further thoughts

  • I now think about this every time I think about productivity. It feels like most of the productivity tricks that work for us work because of our idiosyncratic paths towards them that make us emotionally attached and invested in them. Raw knowledge is way not enough and it’s (1) difficult to notice that the reason the trick works for you is because you’re emotionally invested in it, (2) it’s difficult to translate these emotions into text and to other people

  • thus, I expect most productivity advice (and most advice in general) to not work, even if it is objectively good (!!!), simply because you need emotional belief that the advice will work to act on advice but only knowledge about the advice without necessary emotion is typically transmitted

    • this reminds me of a tweet I saw that said ~“the only difference between people who think whether startup stock options are incredible or whether they’re worthless is whether they have a friend who became a millionaire when a startup they worked for went public”
  • as one other example, I mentioned that I am obsessed with writing everything down and it seems to me that this is because it some point I got really emotionally invested into this idea due to my personal circumstances but I’ve been mostly unable to make my friends emotionally understand just how important this habit is

  • so yeah, I feel like over time more and more of my thoughts and behavioral patterns become inscrutable to other people, exactly in line with vgr’s post, except that this inscrutability hides under the guise of being able to be communicated openly


thoughts? thinking about turning this into a proper blog post

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feels like most of the productivity tricks that work for us work because of our idiosyncratic paths towards them that make us emotionally attached and invested in them.

The truest thing I read all day

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A post was split to a new topic: Roam Research

I know you suggested I try making my own sheet that does this.
I didn’t get to doing it, but I still feel like for me, I would actually benefit from just using your sheet that you already made with your macros. The idea of pressing the mouse button every time I’m distracted appeals to me.

For those people you mentioned that you told to try this method, and they said it didn’t work for them - did they make their own sheet or did you give yours to them?

I did not give my sheet to anybody and asked everyone to create their own sheet…

I think self-help authors are aware of this emotional priming effect; hence the length of self-help books that purport to enhance behavior change (increasing productivity, etc.). They are trying to induce emotional attachment instead of providing neat, concise bullet points of “actionable” information—it’s not “actionable” unless you’re emotionally primed.

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Inducing emotional attachment to a productivity method seems to be an absolute necessity. Otherwise status signaling goals will always prevail. Any method that promise to make things easier for you in the long term has low potential for generating good status signals. Of course having such a high implementation/learning cost makes it a good alternative for signaling purposes, but once you reach a plateau you’re in danger of failing to clearly separate yourself from others.

Agree, the path to developing the tool adds to attachment. I expect the “no-code” movement will see its biggest impact not in terms of what businesses “non-technical” people build. It’s now trivially easy to build one’s own digital tools for personal use (well, depending on the tool). For years I bounced back and forth among text editors (which also is my productivity tool). Drafts. Editorial + TextDrop for Dropbox sync. Bear. Ulysses. Evernote. Drafts again. etc. I came to a solid understanding of precisely what I wanted and what I didn’t want. It was a piece of cake to build it for myself in Bubble (and I’m sure equally easy using other platforms). I’ve build my own Pinboard alternative (I’m equally particular about how I collect bookmarks). My own podcast player. Etc. In each case I’m the only user the tool will ever have. Each feature set hews closely to my needs because it’s me who built it. And I love spending my day “living” inside tools I built, even if it wasn’t particularly hard to build them (i.e., it’s not like I’m forging my own hammer).

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  1. The people at beeminder had this idea of “tagtime” that would randomly ping you and ask you what you’re doing. Sounds sorta like what you built: https://forum.beeminder.com/t/dangling-the-tagtime-com-domain-as-a-carrot/3158

  2. I agree 100% about how important emotional resonance is to cause people to try new things and comply with them.

  3. This (2) is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. You wrote about it some in your productivity post. I have a cycle: First (usually after a low moment) I feel that a new system is REALLY IMPORTANT. Next, I do it for a day, a week, or a month. Eventually, it doesn’t feel important, and I stop. Has anyone done any good research in our ability to manipulate how important something feels? Some areas that might be related: drugs, meditation, self-hypnosis, visualization. Curious what you all think.

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ha! I used tagtime in the past and found it pretty interesting but I don’t remember it being very helpful. The thing I like about my current system is that I realize very quickly when I’m distracted due to having to immediately subtract focus minutes upon a distraction

I’d pay $50/month at least for a ‘mental productivity’ equivalent of the Apple Watch.

Something that observes my screen & keystrokes, maybe also physiological parameters like heart rate, and gives me an accurate predictor of ‘mental fatigue’/‘probability of distraction’, and makes small suggestions/interventions to improve it. It should (presumably) be possible to gather an enormous amount of data from many people to make it work extremely well. Moneyball for productivity.

In fact: if any system could provably increase my productivity by 50% (which seems perfectly feasible) then I’d probably be happy to exchange it for 25% of my paycheck. That’s a big business! Why is nobody doing it?

It’s simply insane that almost everyone in the world shares the same problem, the solution to which is ostensibly worth $10^12, seemingly tractable with recent technology developments, and has clear returns to scale… yet the only solutions on the market are Mom&Pop apps which barely scratch the surface of the problem.

Your message implies you are going to try https://bossasaservice.life/ upon learning about the service

A better analogy would probably be https://www.whoop.com/, https://habitlab.stanford.edu/, or https://setapp.com/apps/timing, all of which I do use.

I think the key is to market it as high-end performance insights (data and tools to help you-- master of your own fate-- become even more of a performant relentless animal than you already are) so you avoid the emasculation failure-mode of something like boss-as-a-service.

What’s still unclear to me at this point is how you know, once you realize you’ve not been focused, how many minutes you’ve accumulated in that state?

How can you be sure it works wonders? Aren’t the mental rabbit holes we sometimes get drawn into also sometimes portals into new worlds that are worth exploring?


I’ve been tracking all my productive hours for almost two years and I’ve also iterated on some systems to improve my output. What I’ve noticed is that you can have focused time which you spend working in the wrong direction. I’ve personally had a lot of this type of time. I’ve tried to engineer ways to reflect back on the time chunks after logging them, or on the week’s distribution of hours during my weekly reflection, to assess not so much “was I focused”, but: “was I moving in the right direction?”

To the problem as you frame it reminds me of this article:

From the article:

If you’re working by yourself, you can shape your code and environment to reflect your mental model. This makes it easy to quickly write terse, simple, maintainable code. But it’s hard for other people to work with you. They don’t share your mental model, and they don’t come in with all your initial assumptions. This is somewhat addressable if you all start working on the project together but falls apart when people join on later. The expressivity doesn’t scale. While with using a less expressive language, the working assumptions have to be explicitly built on as boilerplate and abstractions. Harder to work with your own, but easier to work with other people’s.

The author attributes his increased performance to a better fit between his tooling and his mental model. And because we all have divergent mental structures, it makes it more difficult for others to work with him (using his tooling).

It’s not quite the same as what you’re stressing here: the emotional learning aspect of it. When I started using Roam for instance, it felt like I was being forced to operate inside a mental framework that wasn’t my own. It felt very unintuitive at first. But once I started to get the hang of it, I started experiencing positive emotions. This I suspect is what got me hooked.

To tie it back to your google sheet. It sounds sort of like what Roam sounded and looked like to me: a bit complicated, cumbersome, and not intuitive. Would I feel differently if I experienced positive emotions by using it? I think so. Would it be easier to experience those emotions if your methods aligned with my mental structures? I also think that’s probably the case.