4 Quick Tweaks That Will Make You More Productive Cover

4 Quick Tweaks That Will Make You More Productive

In 2008, Simon & Schuster wrote a $200,000 check for Emily Gould to finish a book she’d already started. For the next two years, not much happened. Her husband knew why:

“You’ll sell your book for a million dollars,” he said, over and over again. But there was one thing he wouldn’t tolerate, and that was all the time I spent clicking and scrolling. He didn’t buy the line about it being a form of creativity. He called it an addiction.

Procrastination is the creative’s curse and today, all jobs require creativity. One of the most common ways we procrastinate is by looking for ways to procrastinate less. Over the past three years, I have too.

I even tried lots of stuff. Only to arrive at the disillusioning, yet oddly satisfying realization that just four productivity hacks have stuck — because they’re all I need.

Here’s the 80/20 of productivity hacks that will make you focused. Not all of the time, but enough of the time. So you may do your work and do it well.

1. Choose one, non-negotiable task that must get done each day.

Until 1900 the word ‘priority’ was rarely used in the English language. That’s because it stems from the Latin ‘prior,’ which means ‘first’— and there can only ever be one ‘first’ of anything. Multiple priorities are a paradox.

Hence, James Clear suggests picking an anchor task:

“One of the major improvements I’ve made recently is to assign one (and only one) priority to each work day. Although I plan to complete other tasks during the day, my priority task is the one non-negotiable thing that must get done.”

Your anchor task is your life’s mission, if only for a day. Unless your office burns down or your laptop spontaneously disintegrates, you MUST finish it.

Choosing your anchor task should hurt. If it doesn’t, it’s not important enough. For example, my anchor task today is to send out a newsletter. If I fail to finish this post, that would really suck, but the newsletter is the most important thing.

The easiest way to consistently pick an anchor task is to use the Momentum extension. When you first open your browser, it automatically prompts you:

2. Make checking your email a conscious choice that’s only possible at certain times.

An email is a to-do sent by another person. It’s not a phone call, so it’s never urgent. Checking our inbox is part of the dopamine chase Gould’s husband described. We’re not doing it to work. We’re doing it to get our fix.

We talk about “cleaning our inbox.” That’s literally what it is. Digging through the dirt, sorting, organizing. As with your home, if you sweep once a day it’s a soothing, transformative experience. Sweep all the time and you’re OCD. A neat freak.

The calmness I feel from ignoring my email for 23 out of 24 hours each day is unprecedented. The tool I use to do it is Inbox Pause. It adds a little button to your Gmail that says ‘Pause.’ Press it and no new emails will show up in your inbox until you say so. Now, sweeping is a conscious choice.

I have two rules for un-pausing:

  1. Never do it before 11 AM.
  2. Only do it once a day.

It doesn’t always work, but it’s made my life a lot better.

Note: With the paid version, you can even set a schedule by which your email is moved to your inbox automatically.

3. Make sure your phone is actually silent when you set it to be and hide it from view.

Apple’s official name for the toggle switch on the side of your iPhone is Ring/Silent. Then why isn’t my iPhone silent when I press it?

The only difference between a ringing phone and a vibrating one is that the latter is less annoying for the people around you. For you, they’re equally distracting. It only takes one adjustment in ‘Settings’ to fix that.

Go to ‘Sounds’ and uncheck ‘Vibrate on Silent.’ Done.

You can now eliminate your phone’s audible attacks on your senses at the switch of a button. If you also remove your phone as a visible distraction itself, you’ll be golden. How?

Place your phone somewhere hidden from view. It could be in your desk drawer, backpack, behind your laptop or in your jacket. As long as you can’t see it, you won’t grab it.

Welcome to iPhone heaven.

4. Set up places to store your distracting thoughts.

This last tweak to your environment will address the most powerful distractor of all: your mind. In the torrential storm of up to 50,000 thoughts that passes through our brain each day, it’s normal for a lot of them to be unrelated to your current task. The problem is letting them pass through.

The Zeigarnik Effect is what keeps sending distracting thoughts to the top of your mind. The way to beat it is to externalize these thoughts. Just like Dumbledore stores some of his memories in his pensieve.

All you need to pull this off is a go-to place where you can store these thoughts as they occur. David Allen calls these places collection buckets in Getting Things Done. While his system captures everything that’s incomplete, it seems daunting to set it up.

So here’s the trick: Set up just one collection bucket. It can be a note on your phone, a physical storing tray, a notebook or a collection of post-its. Now, whenever you remember you need to buy milk, or a movie you want to watch, or to call Tom for his birthday, you can drop it in there and the thought will stop pestering you.

Over time, you’ll automatically add more buckets as needed. For example, I started with a single note in my phone for administrative to do’s, like taxes and paper work, which slowly developed into a bigger system to manage my income, expenses, college classes, writing and projects.

The Path to Perfection

As she told her publicist to, the Amazon description of her book calls Emily “the voice of her generation.” With 8,000 copies sold after three years, that’s hardly the case. Even a master chef’s stew tastes stale when it boils too long.

Right this second, people are tweeting about working on their novel, which means they’re not working on their novel. I get it. Them, Emily, me, you. We want it to be perfect.

But sometimes, the only path to perfection leads right through ‘good enough.’

Now go do some work.

How To Fight Anxiety Cover

How To Fight Anxiety

We spend all of our waking hours chasing goals. More money, more leisure, more everything. In doing so myself, I recently stumbled upon an insight that stopped me in my tracks.

In 1951, Alan Watts wrote in The Wisdom of Insecurity:

“I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the ‘backwards law.’ When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it — which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, ‘Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.’”

But isn’t that all we do? Struggle to stay afloat? We set goals we think will make us happy, then we dive in. And so we sink. A lot. Back then, Watts said about the book:

“It is written in the conviction that no theme could be more appropriate in a time when human life seems to be so peculiarly insecure and uncertain. It maintains that this insecurity is the result of trying to be secure, and that, contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves.”

If Watts thought 1951 was uncertain, I wonder what he’d say in 2017. The book’s subtitle, ‘A Message for an Age of Anxiety,’ may be even more appropriate today than it was when it came out.

Watts’s message sounds gloomy, but reveals valuable lessons, if we dare to look closer.

Setting Goals Makes You Sad…

All is well, you go to work, live your life and nothing too crazy happens. That’s baseline happiness, according to NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In The Happiness Hypothesis, he explains that no matter how far we deviate from this baseline level, we always regress back to the mean:

“We are bad at “affective forecasting,” that is, predicting how we’ll feel in the future. We grossly overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions. Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.”

Imagine you’re at this base level. Now, you set a bold, new goal. You want a Ferrari. Or more confidence. Or a girlfriend. Looking at your happiness mathematically, the following happens:

You, at baseline happiness = 0.
You, after reaching your new goal = 0 + X.

To close the gap between now and the future, you have to solve this equation: 0 = 0 + X

Subtract X on both sides and you get:

You, currently in lack of your new goal = 0 – X.
You, after you attain X and fill the hole = 0.

All you’ve done is made yourself worse off than before. A lottery win is a sudden amplification of your happiness. A big goal is an expectation of the future that reduces your contentment with the present.

In order to desire, you first have to acknowledge something’s missing. It’s this intent focus on what we’re lacking that makes us miserable. We’re placing ourselves in front of artificial trenches that separate us from mostly made up needs.

Since we price the expectation of reaching our goals into our present state, the best we can hope for is to end up back at zero, but not before feeling bad for lacking what we ‘should already have’ for a long time.

…While Being Sad Makes You Happy

However, there’s also a good side to the law of reversed effort. Per Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck:

“What’s interesting about the backwards law is that it’s called “backwards” for a reason: not giving a fuck works in reverse. If pursuing the positive is a negative, then pursuing the negative generates the positive.

Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires.”

Instead of desperately wanting more and then feeling bad for staring into the abysses of our own shortcomings, what if we just accepted them? What if we let our lacks, our mistakes, our flaws just wash over us and be done with it?

Louis C. K. thinks that’s a great idea:

“I started to get that sad feeling and I was reaching for the phone and I said: “You know what? Don’t. Just…be sad. Stand in the way of it and let it hit you like a truck. And I let it come and I pulled over and I just cried. So much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments. I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true, profound happiness.”

Louis was lonely, his goal was connection. To avoid the sadness, he could’ve messaged 50 people until someone wrote back. He would’ve succeeded in connecting but remained miserable deep inside. Instead, he faced his sorrow and had a meaningful experience.

That’s the ironic twist Watts referred to. To avoid real life adversity, we subject ourselves to imaginary pain by chasing false gods. Yet, it is right behind said adversity where true happiness awaits.

If there’s so little to gain from our aspirations and so much from facing our fears, then what’s the way to seek out one over the other?

Everything Is Better When You Care a Little Less

My grandpa ran a little clothes shop in his village for 50 years. While I would’ve freaked out every single day no customer came in, he didn’t try to explain each tiny problem away. Not because there were fewer potential reasons back then, but because finding them rarely solves anything. Sometimes, the best you can do is shrug and clean the counter, because people don’t always need new clothes.

Imagine this: Some days, our grandparents’ only communication with the rest of the world was to walk to the mailbox and pull out nothing but bad news. A relative missing in the war. A whole village being moved.

What did they do? They moved on and went about their day. That’s called detachment. Part of life is that life sometimes sucks. To accept that and not be swayed by it is a skill.

Detachment is great, because no matter where you stand, whether that’s far away from your goals, on top of the highest mountain, or down in the deepest trench while it’s raining, it allows you to do one thing: go on.

But today we don’t go on. We go on Facebook. And Instagram. And Twitter. In search of answers we don’t need, hoping to get a quick fix. Because we care too much. Yet, all we see on highlight media is everyone having ‘the time of their lives.’

And we’re right back to staring at our ditch.

What Detachment Is Not

Detachment can be summed up in three words: I am enough. At least for now. You might have a crooked nose, been single forever or not enough money to buy your dad a cruise, but you know what? That’s okay. It’ll do for today.

I don’t believe detachment will absolve us from chasing goals. That’d be naive. It’s human nature. But don’t put detachment on the other side of the next ditch. “If only I could be more detached, then I’d be happy.” No.

Detachment is not a recipe for happiness. It’s a way to go on living while you wait for happiness to come back.

Detachment is taking care of your shit while your partner figures out their own. It’s not letting your boss’s feedback tear a hole in your self-image. Not adding more suffering in imagination to what you endure in reality.

It is not “I don’t need this.” It’s “I’ll be fine if I don’t get it.” Not right away, anyway. Because every path is longer than we think, with more obstacles than we’d like.

The journey may be the best part, but only if you’re okay with arriving at the wrong end.

Success Has Nothing To Do With Self-Improvement Cover

Success Has Nothing To Do With Self-Improvement

Tʜɘ ɔloƨɘɿ you looʞ, ƚʜɘ lɘƨƨ you ƨɘɘ.

Charles Bukowski was born about two hours from where I grew up, in Andernach. Sadly, his resting place is a slightly longer trip, for it holds the bigger lesson, chiseled into his tombstone.

“Don’t try.” In the first chapter of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson decodes some of the hidden meaning of Bukowski’s final message:

This is the real story of Bukowski’s success: his comfort with himself as a failure. Bukowski didn’t give a fuck about success. Even after his fame, he still showed up to poetry readings hammered and verbally abused people in his audience. He still exposed himself in public and tried to sleep with every woman he could find. Fame and success didn’t make him a better person. Nor was it by becoming a better person that he became famous and successful. Self-improvement and success often occur together. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the same thing.

…and he’s right.

Some days, I choose self-improvement. Like yesterday. I was behind on work, but took an hour long walk anyway. Because it was good exercise. Some days, I choose success. Like when I send an email to thousands of people, hoping they’ll click the link and buy.

When I’m aware of it, this distinction is liberating. It allows me to strike a balance. The problem is I often lack this awareness. Because we’re so busy looking closer, digging deeper — for books and gadgets and quick fixes and articles like my very own — we profoundly confuse self-improvement and success.

What We Really Mean When We Say Success

One reason we keep missing the forest for the trees is that we’ve come to use the word ‘success’ as an umbrella term for all our goals, when 99% of the time, we use it as a synonym for ‘get rich.’ Success sounds nicer. Less greedy. More tolerant. But we don’t consider the stay-at-home mom successful for staying at home and nurturing a family, unless she also drives her kids to school in a Cayenne and runs Spanx from her kitchen table.

If good habits were paid in Bitcoin, I could buy a Lambo right now. Yet here I am, struggling towards my first $10k month. Because I’m too nice. Too shy to ask for the sale, too bent on enjoying what I do, too rebellious to work for a boss that might make me rich. But as long as I say “I’m working hard to become successful in my own way,” I still get to feel good about myself. It’s less painful than acknowledging “yeah, I kinda suck at making money.”

Of course the real kicker is that if I actually defined what success really means to me, my excuse to chase ‘success’ would evaporate entirely. What do I really want? A life in which I can write every day, work from wherever and manage my own time.

I’ve been doing that for three years now. With a little bit of flexibility, I can keep it up for the next thirty. So why complain? I’m already successful, it would seem. I just want more money. My guess is I’m not alone. You do that too.

Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that’s what’s happening.

What We Choose Not To See

Another reason we confuse being better with being richer is that we fall prey to survivorship bias. It happens in two ways.

First, we choose heroes that are both, rich and good people and then ignore their flaws. Warren Buffett eats like a 6-year old and drinks Coke every day? Haha, that’s funny! Mark Zuckerberg may have stolen his initial business idea and booted out co-founders? Come on, that was a long time ago! That’s just a natural side effect. The rose-tint in our glasses.

A more extreme variant is that we completely pass over people like Charles Bukowski. People, who are extremely successful, yet show little to no efforts in self-improvement. Tony Stark. Billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, superhero…and a conceited, self-destructive, derogatory asshole.

His real-world counterpart shares a bit of the same struggle: Robert Downey Jr. found success way too fast, spiraled into drug abuse, then later got his shit together and found real success in his forties. For him, self-improvement was a way to get back and then finally maintain the success he had already had before, not the means to achieve it in the first place.

There is no shortage of examples of people who are wildly successful, yet couldn’t care less about their behavior, morale, integrity or waking up at 5 AM and journaling each day. Charlie Sheen, Miley Cyrus, Dan Bilzerian, Charles Bukowski. All successful, but hardly inspiring. Donald Trump is the president of the United States, for fuck’s sake!

Even in the self-improvement space, most of our heroes are anti-role models in many respects. Tim Ferriss has always struggled with depression and even contemplated suicide. Tony Robbins is on his second wife. James Altucher is both: divorced and often depressed.

This is neither good nor bad. It just is. If these people had spent all their time fixing their flaws, they never would have worked enough to get to where they are. Foregoing self-improvement in some areas of their life is the price they paid for their worldly success. What we must realize is that that’s a thing.

What’s the Lesson?

Work is the variable of success. The more you use whatever talent you have, the faster you’ll make more money.

Time is the variable of self-improvement. You have to read, think, monitor your behavior, get better at recognizing it and ask thousands of questions you don’t know the answer to. All of that takes time. Time you could spend working. But the rewards are plenty. Integrity, health, feeling better about staying true to yourself, you name it, it’s in the cards.

Thus, self-improvement and success sometimes conflict one another. They correlate, but the nature of this relationship isn’t always proportional. Charles Bukowski didn’t try for either.

“Somebody asked me: ‘What do you do? How do you write, create?’ You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality.”

You can now give in to the backfire effect and write off Bukowski as the nihilist he probably was. Or, you’re a self-improvement junkie like me and complete the sentence.

  • Don’t try to hide wanting more money.
  • Don’t try to get better if you don’t care.
  • Don’t try to be what you’re not.

That’s also self-improvement. Realizing when self-improvement itself gets in the way. Neither wanting to be better nor rich is a problem on its own. Cause for concern is desiring either one when it’s not you.

Remember this: Chasing success and striving for self-improvement are two different games.

And you have to know which one you’re playing.