A collection of personal tips and strategies for optimizing productivity. A lot of people have productivity pages on their personal websites, my favorite of these is that of Sam Altman. See also: supplements post.
Stop reading news
Stop reading news. Especially politics. Almost none of it is important. If something important politically were to happen, you are almost guaranteed to hear about it from someone regardless. A lot of very large actors and systems want you to be addicted to feeling constantly outraged and/or ‘informed’ about the details of what drama is currently happening, especially in the US. Obviously not all sources of news are equal, and I’m mainly just referencing some of the most popular websites people waste their time on and get upset at things from today; there are plenty of wonderful niche websites and communities that are good uses of your time instead.
Learn to say no to more things. Think as carefully as you can about what things in your routine you actually derive enjoyment from, and which you just do because someone was able to instill the habit in you, and you have never analyzed it in-depth enough to realize it’s not worth continuing.
Don’t work against diminishing returns
A lot of activities feature diminishing returns that scale with how often you perform them. Checking Twitter or Reddit for the first time in days might provide a lot of value to you, but once you start meticulously checking them over and over, the value decrease until it is near-zero. Consciously analyze when you’re stuck in a loop of something that you are getting less and less value out of, and replace that activity with a fresh one.
It’s useful to have some prepared activities that you can spend small arbitrary amounts of time doing, often to fill in gaps between different parts of your day. Social media and other communication like email or instant messengers are commonly used during these periods. One good alternative I like is to use is to review cards in my anki deck, as it’s an activity that I can start and stop instantly, and still provides value even if I only do it for a few minutes.
All time is not created equally for most people. Sometimes you are tired, or stressed, or energetic. Analyze the patterns in your mood to best curate your activities to your moods.
There’s usually a period halfway through my day when I’m low on energy, so that is my preferred time to relax and consume low-effort content like watching videos. Similarly, I usually have a lot of energy in the first few hours of the day, so that’s the best time for me to perform tasks that take a lot of discipline, like exercising, meditation, making phonecalls, sending emails, and so on.
Optimize your sleep
Optimizing your sleep can be tricky, but luckily we have a lot of knowledge and tools that can help you if you’re having trouble. You should generally prioritize sleep over additional work in the long-term, as its benefits will outweigh the extra time that it consumes.
If you use technology that exposes you to bright lights within hours of sleeping, which you likely do, look for a solution to reduce your blue light exposure. This includes software like f.lux and redshift, as well as solutions like Night Shift that now come with iOS by default. You can also purchase glasses that filter blue light for between $30 and $100. Decreasing screen brightness is good regardless of its ability to aid your sleep.
Although difficult, it’s worth taking the time, energy, and money that it may take you to optimize your sleep. Anything I can do to make my sleeping environment quieter, darker, and often slightly cooler, has generally been an absurdly high ROI. Consider ear plugs, noise-canceling earphones such as iPods Pro, a sleeping mask, various mats that you sleep on that will decrease the temperature of your bed and/or setting the thermostat lower, and quantitative technologies such as an Oura ring if you think you may benefit from tracking your sleep in detail. Also worth noting that having more than 1-2 drinks shortly before bed, and eating shortly before bed, are usually not very good for your sleep. Melatonin is worth looking into for many, as well as sometimes some other options.
Much has been said on the topic of drugs purported to increase productivity. Although nootropics communities have long lists of interesting substances, I’d suggest that it is not worth your time to look for substances that make you smarter, as evolution has already performed well in this area, and no drugs notably increase IQ or decrease susceptibility to biases. Instead, you should look for substances that either increase your productivity, or that otherwise fix pre-existing conditions you may have, such as a dietary deficiency or mental disorder. This section is a short list of substances that I think are worth researching further, it is not a guide or comprehensive resource.
Caffeine is well-known, so little needs to be said here about what it does or how it works. There are few downsides, many upsides, and it is legal and socially encouraged. It is still a drug, however, so side-effects and tolerance are possible. To improve tolerance, modulate your caffeine usage depending on how badly its effects are desired, taking less or none on days where you feel naturally awake and energized, and more on opposing days. Try to take note of the dosages that you regularly consume to try to avoid dosage creeping upwards. Caffeine pills are also a cheap, quick, and underused alternative to drinks like tea and coffee, which allow for much more accurate dosing as well as quicker preparation and consumption.
If you’re a frequent user of caffeine, it’s worth taking note of L-theanine, which is a reasonably cheap extract from tea leaves that improves the experience of caffeine for many users, synergistically improving concentration and alertness (K=11 meta-analysis). It’s often reported that the combination of L-theanine and caffeine helps users retain the positive effects of caffeine such as improved energy and motivation, but without the negative effects, such as increased jitteriness and decreased calmness. As usual, others report no noticeable difference, so it is worth A/B testing this on yourself, ideally in a double-blinded scenario.
Nicotine can be more difficult to use effectively, but nonetheless is included as its public perception is generally more negative than is warranted due to its history of being used alongside cigarettes and tobacco (and indeed, many citations purporting to demonstrate nicotine’s significant harm are in fact discussing smoking, not nicotine). Nicotine provides improvements to areas such as motor control, reaction time, attention, and working memory (K=41 meta-analysis). Used alone, it is significantly less addictive than commonly believed, generally just past the point of caffeine. Nicotine does not cause cancer, although other side effects exist such as increased blood pressure and tolerance. Caffeine is likely to be a better choice for an every-day supplement, although your mileage may vary. If nicotine interests you, also be sure to read Gwern’s detailed essay on it.
Also be reminded that smoking as a method of administration should never be used for any drug. Although vaping is a significant improvement from smoking, it is better to avoid both. Nicotine is often best consumed in the form of nicotine gum or lozenges.
Modafinil is well-known in nootropic communities for being a powerful drug with a long duration that is similar to amphetamines in potency, but lacks their full stimulatory aspects and side effects. Modafinil is approved by the FDA to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, and is otherwise illegal to purchase in most countries. It is also a preferred drug of several government organizations such as the United States air force, which has approved modafinil for fatigue management, phasing out its less safe and more stimulatory predecessor, dextroamphetamine. Modifinil is relatively safe and has a low potential for addiction, although the expected range of side effects similar to those caused by stimulants may be present. It is known that modafinil acts as an atypical selective weak dopamine reputake inhibitor, however its mechanisms of action beyond this are poorly understand compared to the above drugs. As it is a scheduled substance and is more powerful than many of the other substances listed in this section, it is generally only used by hyper-productive individuals, aside from those that use it to treat a disorder. Despite its illegality, it is rarely a target of law enforcement, and many of its users purchase it online without a prescription for around $1 a pill.
Adrafinil is a pro-drug of modafinil (metabolizes to modafinil post-ingestion) which, unlike modafinil, is not a scheduled substance in the US. Unfortunately, adrafinil has a much longer onset of action, is less effective than modafinil, and is likely to be less safe than modafinil, potentially causing liver issues with long-term usage.
Armodafinil is an enantiopure form of modafinil, consisting only of Modafinil in its R-enantiomer form, which has a significantly longer half life of 12-15 hours, compared to the S-enantiomer’s half life of 4 hours. It is also a schedule IV substance in the US, but is still readily available online.
Together these drugs are often referred to as *afinil. For more information about modafinil, a great resource is Gwern’s modafinil essay.
Phenibut is an interesting and under-discussed substance: it is a central nervous system depressant with anti-anxiety and stimulatory effects. It is a ‘mild’ drug in the way that caffeine is a mild drug, having minor effects on general perception and functionality. It has a relatively low potential for addiction and adverse side-effects, and there have never been any reported deaths due to overdose. Phenibut generally makes one feel more alert as well as more extroverted, leading it to be used by many generally shy individuals that wish to perform better in social scenarios. It is legal in the US and can easily be purchased online at reasonable prices. Phenibut is a GABAB receptor agonist, similar to alcohol, and should never be combined with alcohol.
Amphetamines such as adderall and ritalin are well-known, and not much needs to be written about them here. They are heavier on side effects, addiction, tolerance, and long-term negative effects than everything else discussed on this page, so their usage is discouraged unless you have severe ADHD. It is generally much better to use something like caffeine or even modafinil than amphetamines, which are also harder to obtain, ‘more’ illegal, and more expensive.
There are hundreds of supplements and drugs that are used to potentially increase productivity in one way or another. This image from SlateStarCodex’s Nootropics survery is a good (although very rough) overview of what is popular by those that are interested in this kind of stuff. This section has only focused on a few that are popular, effective, relatively safe, and primarily used by those performing non-physical labor. If you’re looking to increase your productivity as an athlete, this section is not for you, but you should probably look into creatine, protein powder, and super starch at the least.
It’s worth getting your blood tested for common deficiencies as well. Vitamin D is a relatively common deficiency that can be solved for several cents a day. Most other deficiencies are relatively uncommon unless you have an abnormal diet. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, be sure to get additional blood tests to ensure you’re not depriving yourself of anything essential or optimal.
I don’t use time-management systems for general work. I find reducing root causes like procrastination to provide greater returns than attempting to work around by using a time-management system. This isn’t the case for everyone, as some time-management systems are quite popular and have many users that swear by them.
Todo lists are still often under-used. I use temporally-hierarchied todo lists as well as topically-segregated todo lists. An example of the first is having a personal todo list for the day, week, and year. An example of the second is having a todo list for different types of media, such as what to read, watch, download, and buy, as well as todo lists for all of my different projects.