Productivity / Sanity

From Tristan Harris (Center for Humane Technology)

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”

EO Wilson

Phone Tips

  • No apps other than messaging have push notifications on. iPhone is always in do not disturb mode with call notifs exception.
  • Strict no phone in the bedroom rule. Helps avoid using it late at night or early morning. Get standalone alarm clock.

Staying focused

  • Use FocusMe to block certain sites / apps for a certain time period. Set a schedule (eg weekly 10-5 no social media). Require entering very long string to unblock.
  • Use Toggl to start a timer when you’re working on a task. If you know the time is ticking you’re less likely to go do another thing. Sends weekly timing reports.
  • When you start on a task, close Slack / IM and your email. When they’re not in view, you’re less likely to check them. If you do think about checking, you’ll have an extra barrier of having to open them.
  • Favour paper subscriptions to the publications you read regularly. Easier to stay focused when reading them (no one-hop away to another app)

Slack Tips

  • Collapse your channel list: Go to Settings -> Advanced -> Channel List -> Select ‘My unreads + everything I’ve starred’.
  • Configure key words that notify you. (eg your name, last name). As a PM I have also found it helpful to get notified on “product manager”, “feature request”, “hate” – can help catch a few issues.
  • Configure notifications. My favourite scheme is to always be set to “do not disturb”, as I only get notifications if the person pinging deems it necessary (they get prompted).
  • Auto collapse new images and GIFs -(Preferences > “Messages and Media” > “Inline Media & Links” > untick “Expand links to images, video and audio from external sources”)
  • Compact theme (no images for each user profile)

Email Tips

There is a Chrome extension for Gmail called Boomerang which has a feature called Inbox Pause.

As it says on the tin, it enables you to take back control of when you want to be receiving email.


  • Chrome Dark mode: Needs permissions to a lot but is fully open-sourced so audited. Flux for adjusting brightness / white light as day goes on.

“The Effective Engineer”, by Edmond Lau

I read this book a year into my first job and it had a pretty big impact on me. It is geared towards engineers but 90% of the advice & learnings apply to anyone.

The two key takeaways for me were:

1) Investing in your rate of learning is critical

Edmond that knowledge compounds – it gives you a foundation, enabling you to gain new knowledge faster. So the earlier you learn, the more time you have for this knowledge to compound, and even small deltas in your own learning rate make a big difference over the long run.

This is actionable in how you make career decisions…

When companies pay you for cushy and unchallenging 9-to-5 jobs, Cohen argues, “what they are actually doing is paying you to accept a much lower intellectual growth rate. When you recognize that intelligence is compounding, the cost of that missing long-term compounding is enormous. They’re not giving you the best opportunity of your life. Then a scary thing can happen: … [y]ou get complacent and stall.”

– Stephen Cohen (Palantir Founder)

2: Focusing on high leverage tasks

This is something we know intuitively but Edmond has a few good examples:

  • Investing in helping others is a high leverage activity for the company. For instance, for every hour invested in helping a cohort of interns onboard, N hours of company productivity are gained, where N depends on the number of interns and how early the onboarding help is given (see the “knowledge compounding” point above.)
  • Investing in your own productivity tools and keeping a maker’s schedule as much as possible

He also provides a simple framework for categorising your todo list which has worked well for me.

“Deep work” by Cal Newport

This is a great book going through the importance of deep work, success stories / examples from history, and practical & modern advice.

Some highlights below (thanks to my brother Gabriel for writing these up and recommending the book):

  • In the modern economy, 3 groups will thrive:
    • best at what they do (because more people have access to them)
    • best at staying focused and not being disrupted
    • those having access to capital
  • Deliberate practice is what’s necessary to master anything
    • deep, deep focus on a specific skill
    • receive feedback
  • Attention residue: “when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.”
  • Email ends up costing companies a lot of money
  • Even businesses that have nothing to do with internet/social media insist on getting likes (eg refrigeration trucks). We automatically assume that because “the internet” exists, it must be good, and it must be used.
  • Winifred Gallagher wrote a book called Rapt, and its main thesis is: attention (what we focus on) is the key to life. “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”
  • “Knowledge work, which due to its dependence on ubiquitous connectivity, generates a devastatingly appealing buffet of distraction”
  • Think of your job as a craft: it is not the end product that counts, but rather the journey. Those who cut stones must think of the cathedral. When we think back to those who built swords, we don’t admire the end result (we could produce better weapons) but we admire the craftsmanship.
  • Almost any job can be fulfilling if it is done as a craft. You don’t need to save the world in order to feel fulfilled in your job.
  • Don’t just focus on blocking out distractions. Focus also on the big thing you want to achieve that should help you block out everything else.
  • Lag vs lead metrics : lag metrics can show you that you how you did in the past while lead metrics tell you how you are doing now. Lag metrics are the result of lead metrics, just like an end goal is the result of daily practice.
  • Unconscious thought theory : you take better decisions unconsciously than consciously, your mind figures things out in the background.
  • Have a shutdown routine at the end of every day: get rid of incomplete tasks by having a plan to deal w them in next few days. Answer urgent emails.
  • Do Roosevelt dashes: named after Teddy Roosevelt, short work periods of very high intensity, followed by breaks. Interval training for the break. Set tight artificial deadlines to force intensity.
  • Productive meditation : use walks, showers, commuting to figure out complex problems. Take walks in the middle of the day, when needed, to figure out stuff
  • Put some thought into your leisure time: don’t just fall for the lowest common denominator stuff, actively plan ahead of time what you will do when free.
  • Using energy through stimulating activities in your spare time won’t decrease the energy you’ll have at work, on the contrary. Like exercise which will make you less energized.
  • Fixed schedule productivity: start with rules about your schedule, e.g. no work after 8pm. Then fit as much productivity as you can inside this schedule. This forces you to have a much much higher bar for things to catch your attention. « No » becomes the default answer.
  • Process-centric emails: save yourself many back and forths by detailing the road ahead in an email. E. g. someone asks your for comments on a doc, you say “I’m adding my suggestions and edits. I think you’re good for the rest. No need to send it back to me afterwards. “ Same for scheduling coffee “here are a list of dates. For these dates, here are times. Here’s where I suggest we meet.”

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